CINCINNATI — Prosecutors argued Monday that Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld's motion to dismiss federal bribery charges lacks merit and "advances several erroneous legal arguments."
Federal officials alleged that Sittenfeld promised to deliver council votes in 2018 supporting a development deal at the former Convention Place Mall in exchange for four $5,000 contributions to his political action fund. Sittenfeld allegedly accepted four more checks in fall 2019 for a total of $40,000 in bribes.
A federal grand jury indicted Sittenfeld on charges of honest services wire fraud, bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds and attempted extortion under color of official right; Sittenfeld has pleaded not guilty.
Sittenfeld's attorneys filed a motion to drop the charges on Dec. 23, claiming his actions were not criminal, but a reflection of his pro-development positions as a city council member.
"In our American democracy, elected public officials have always sought 'support on the basis of their views and what they intend to do or have done' and have solicited money based on those views and promises," the motion read.
His attorneys also argued the indictment "fails as a matter of law" because Sittenfeld was simply discussing politics and his own policies with former Bengals player and developer Chinedum Ndukwe, the FBI's informant who hoped to develop the Convention Place Mall site.
"This is not a case about personal gain -- the government does not allege that money went into Mr. Sittenfeld's pockets," the motion to dismiss Sittenfeld's case argues. "Nor does the government allege that his PAC received contributions that exceeded the federal limits, that he spent the contributions unlawfully, or that he failed to disclose the contributions publicly as required by law. Rather, the indictment alleges nothing more than that Mr. Sittenfeld engaged in the kind of routine conduct of elected officials in cities, counties and states across the nation."
In a response filed in district court Monday, U.S. Attorney David DeVillers argued it is not a defense that a public official would have done an official act anyway — "even without payment" — and that receiving bribes through a PAC "is no less corrupt."
"The Defendant’s attempt to focus the Court on certain facts seems premised on another misunderstanding of the law — that because the Defendant purports to be 'prodevelopment,' and because the payments went to his PAC rather than his pocket, he could not commit bribery," DeVillers wrote.
"Contrary to the Defendant’s claims, these actions are not 'core features of our democratic system' or 'everyday American democratic activity' — this is bribery, in violation of federal law, as charged in the Indictment," he continued.
Prosecutors also pushed back on part of the motion to dismiss that argued the indictment was not supplemented with facts that proved prosecutors' case and contained facts that “negate an element or contradict the charge.”
DeVillers said the indictment does properly set forth federal bribery charges, and that a defendant’s interpretation of an indictment is irrelevant — it is up to a jury to determine intent.
"Essentially, the Defendant asks the Court to assess the sufficiency of the evidence — including his intent — and give weight to the Defendant’s interpretation of select paragraphs in the Indictment, while ignoring most others. This is not the law, and this is not an accurate description of the Indictment," wrote DeVillers.
The youngest person ever elected to Council, Sittenfeld agreed to temporarily step down in early December while maintaining his innocence through several social media videos. Earlier this month, his attorneys accused prosecutors of cherry-picking misleading quotes and sharing false information at a news conference announcing the November indictment — potentially tainting a jury pool and spreading misinformation about the case on a national scale.
Republican City Councilman Jeff Pastor is also accused of accepting bribes from Ndukwe for votes on the same project. Former Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard was sentenced late last year to 18 months in prison for accepting $15,000 in bribes, and she must also repay the money she accepted. She is set to begin her sentence March 1.
Read the response to Sittenfeld's motion to dismiss in the viewer below: