CINCINNATI — Federal prosecutors cherry-picked misleading quotes and shared false information in the November news conference where they announced bribery and extortion charges against suspended City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, his attorneys wrote in a motion filed Wednesday morning.
The result, Sittenfeld’s defense alleges, is a poisoned jury pool and misinformation circulating as far as the New York Times.
Sittenfeld, a Democrat, is accused of accepting eight checks in 2018 and 2019 while promising to “deliver the votes” in regard to a Downtown development project. Officials said Sittenfeld “corruptly solicited” the payments — worth a total of $40,000 — and received them in a PAC (a political action fund) he controlled.
At the time the charges were announced, prosecutors described Sittenfeld's control of the PAC as secret. Media outlets including the New York Times repeated that characterization, but Sittenfeld’s defense argues his ownership has always been public, lawful and disclosed to the Federal Election Commission.
The defense’s Wednesday motion requests that Sittenfeld and his defense team be given greater access to the prosecution’s secret recordings of his conversations with undercover FBI agents and Bengal-turned-developer Chinedum Ndukwe.
Partial quotes from those recordings, which include Sittenfeld promising he can secure votes for the development project and instructing agents on how to give to his PAC, were heavily featured in the federal indictment and news conference announcing the charges against him.
“Numerous quotes of Mr. Sittenfeld in the indictment were selectively chosen and unfairly taken out of context to fit the government’s chosen narrative,” the motion alleges. “Some of the quotes are incomplete and quoted only in part. In some instances, the selected quotes cut off Mr. Sittenfeld mid-sentence, effectively removing the exculpatory context and meaning of his statement.”
The motion also alleges that Sittenfeld’s defense has been unfairly prevented from accessing these recordings prior to his trial. Although the government can access the recordings and share them with witnesses at any time, the defense writes that Sittenfeld, his team and potential witnesses are all required to read a six-page protective order and file an executed non-disclosure before listening to any part of the recordings.
“This creates a chilling effect for witnesses who may already be anxious and vacillating about the prospect of speaking to or helping the Defense Team,” according to the motion.
Sittenfeld’s defense wants the current protection order amended to give them the same access that prosecutors have as they prepare their case.
The councilman attempted to have the charges against him dismissed in December, arguing at the time that his actions were not criminal but represented his pro-development positions and typical interactions between politicians and donors.
Sittenfeld, the youngest person ever elected to Cincinnati City Council, had been a favorite for the 2021 mayoral race before the FBI announced its case against him. He was also the third member of Cincinnati City Council to face federal charges that year. Democrat Tamaya Dennard and Republican Jeff Pastor had each been arrested earlier in 2020 on similar charges of soliciting bribes in exchange for favorable votes on city development.