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Judge holds pretrial hearing on citizen petition to remove Councilman Jeff Pastor from office

Petition came after public corruption charges
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Posted at 4:37 PM, Nov 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-24 17:49:40-05

CINCINNATI — Just days after accepting a voluntary, temporary suspension pending the results of a federal public corruption case against him, Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Pastor was on the court docket again Tuesday. These proceedings have the potential to remove the lawmaker from office permanently.

Hamilton County Probate Court Judge Ralph Winkler held a pretrial hearing Tuesday concerning a citizen complaint filed last week against Pastor, requesting his removal from office in light of a federal grand jury's indictment of the councilman. The grand jury accused Pastor of accepting $55,000 in bribes in exchange for votes in 2018 and 2019.

Notably, neither Pastor nor his attorney, Ben Dusing, appeared in court for Tuesday's hearing.

"I'm not happy about that," Winkler said.

It's ultimately up to the Cincinnati City Solicitor's Office to decide if it will prosecute the complaint against Pastor, but Deputy City Solicitor Emily Woerner told Winkler in court Tuesday her office needs more time to decide.

"At this time, we have the allegations that are in the indictment, but, as the court is well aware, those are allegations," Woerner said. "At this time, the city of Cincinnati does not have any evidence in its possession that would allow it to prosecute this action to demonstrate that Mr. Pastor committed a removable offense."

While a suspension could be temporary and removal from office would be permanent, which comes to fruition could determine who fills his seat during the criminal proceedings and for how long.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost petitioned the Ohio Supreme Court to force Pastor's suspension during his federal trial, and Pastor said Friday he would voluntarily accept that suspension.

But that suspension is still pending approval from a federal judge. If or when that happens, Winkler would appoint a temporary replacement for Pastor's seat on City Council. If Pastor ultimately resigns his seat -- as a result of a conviction or by his own choice -- then Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman either would reaffirm Winkler's temporary selection or appoint someone new.

If the citizen's complaint results in Pastor's removal from office by the probate court, the decision would nullify the need for a temporary fill-in council member. In this case, Smitherman would select Pastor's replacement.

Until Pastor's suspension is approved by a federal judge, attorney Curt Hartman -- representing the group of citizens who filed the complaint -- said he will pursue action to make Winkler's appointment of a temporary council member unnecessary.

"I think the question really becomes for the taxpayers of Cincinnati: Do we get someone in temporarily under a suspension or does the office get declared vacant and appointment to fill out the term is made," Hartman said.

While suspended, Pastor would continue to collect his salary, but he would have to reimburse the city for that amount if he is found guilty of the federal charges against him.

City Council has had to replace two of its members in 2020: Smitherman and Pastor appointed Betsy Sundermann after former Councilwoman Amy Murray resigned to take a position within the Trump administration; Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld appointed Jan-Michele Kearney to replace former Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard after she resigned amid her own public corruption scandal.

The citizen complaint trial was still scheduled for Monday, Nov. 30 as of this writing. At that time, the solicitor's office could decide to proceed with prosecuting the complaint, decide not to or ask for an extension.