Editor's note: This story contains language some readers may find offensive.
CINCINNATI -- Judge Robert Ruehlman called for the resignation of the Cincinnati City Council “Gang of Five," the group of city council members who admitted to conducting public business via secret texts and emails last year.
The judge's action Thursday set off an angry, day-long exchange of criticism and condemnation between Democrats, who accused Republican Ruehlman of playing politics, and Republicans and the attorney who filed the lawsuit against the city.
The messages of Democrats Tamaya Dennard, Greg Landsman, Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld and Wendell Young, who referred to themselves as the “Gang of Five,” cost taxpayers nearly $177,000 in a settlement Ruehlman approved Thursday.
"I really believe that the five city council members should resign and pay it back," Ruehlman said. "They should resign and pay it back ... no city voter should ever vote for them again.”
Ruehlman faced down the city council members in a morning court hearing and also said the five should apologize to the other city council members and to the citizens of Cincinnati.
After the hearing, Seelbach, Sittenfeld and Dennard said they wouldn't resign and Seelbach lashed out at Ruehlman, criticizing his judicial record. The chairwoman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, Gwen McFarlin, said Ruehlman "made a mockery of the court."
As part of the settlement, the Gang of Five were required to turn over all of the emails and texts between them from Jan 1, 2018 to Oct. 25, 2018. The city released them - 626 pages worth - to the public Thursday.
Ruehlman said the $101,000 the city must pay plaintiff Mark Miller, treasurer of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), to settle the case may not be a lot of money to city council members, but to police, fire fighters, snow plow drivers, sanitation workers and road inspectors, “that’s a lot of money.”
“That’s their hard-earned tax dollars that have just been poured down the drain on something that should have never ever happened,” the judge said.
The city also paid $75,000 for legal fees and $1,000 for court costs.
Democrats fired back in tweets and prepared statements after the hearing.
Seelbach and McFarlin, in particular, condemned Miller's attorney, Brian Shrive, and COAST. Seelbach said Shrive, COAST and "their fans" continue "to push hatred disguised as standing up for the taxpayer."
McFarlin said "the exploitation of this issue by far-right members of the Republican Party ... is divisive politics at its worst."
In a series of tweets, Dennard called the the entire episode "a political witch hunt" and said "there was NEVER any purposeful attempt to deceive the citizens of the City of Cincinnati."
"This political witch hunt has only reignited my drive to fight for the underserved and those left behind. I guess what I’m trying to say is, you ain’t seen nothing yet," she said.
Landsman's office told WCPO he wouldn't comment Thursday. Young had no comment through his attorney, Scott Croswell.
The head of the Hamilton County Republican Party, Alex Triantifilou, condemned Seelbach for attacking Ruehlman and called on Seelbach to "resign immediately." Triantifilou emailed this statement to WCPO:
“The Democratic response here is typical. The Party that brought you the disastrous Streetcar, gross mismanagement of the City Manager situation, and now has admitted wrongdoing with these juvenile texts, has chosen to attack an outstanding jurist with an impeccable record on the bench. They should be ashamed.
“This City Hall, under Democratic leadership, is a shambles. Judge Ruehlman was correct to speak out for the victims — the unwitting citizenry living with this bad government. It’s regrettable that they have stooped to these attacks, but not one bit surprising.
“Seelbach is among the worst offenders of incivility in the public sphere. His tone of anger and his total inability to work with anyone with a different world view make him unworthy of the public trust. He should resign immediately and move on with work outside of government."
Sittenfeld released a statement after Thursday's hearing which said, in part:
“Let me repeat two things I’ve said before: First, having a quorum participating on one thread was an honest mistake, for which I’ve apologized, and which won’t happen again. In the midst of the difficult situation our City was in last spring, Councilmembers were trying to prevent a political spectacle. Still, that conversation absolutely should have happened in Council Chambers. The response to what was an honest mistake, however, has been for people who don’t have the City’s best interests at heart to work overtime to create chaos and carry out a political agenda.”
Sittenfeld later tweeted this apology:
I made a mistake & I sincerely apologize.
Outside of my family there's nothing I love more than my hometown & its people. I hate that I would ever let them down.
We are a city of grace & a city of great potential. I look forward to working w/ ALL colleagues to help fulfill it
— P.G. Sittenfeld (@PGSittenfeld)
March 7, 2019
Seelbach released this statement after the hearing:
McFarlin's statement said, in part:
"I remember when the name Ruehlman stood for good government in Cincinnati. Now, unfortunately, Judge Ruehlman is nothing more than a rubber stamp for Republican extremists ...(and) his Republican friends who stand to benefit both politically and financially from his statements and his rulings. He has made a mockery of the court.
"All five Councilmembers have admitted fault to violating Ohio’s Sunshine Law. There is no denying their mistake. Moving forward, we as a Party will do everything in our power to educate and emphasize the importance of operating within Ohio’s rules and regulations. Transparency is paramount to serving our public well. Now that this issue is behind us, we call on those involved in the drama – from our local media to our elected officials – to join us in refocusing time, energy, and resources to where it needs to be: the well-being of our City and its many residents.
"The exploitation of this issue by far-right members of the Republican Party ... is divisive politics at its worst. Our taxpayers and climate of civility suffered because they chose to exploit and elongate this issue.
"Together, it is clear that this matter stopped being about the Ohio Open Meetings law and became a politically motivated attack on dedicated public servants that enriched a right-wing law firm with taxpayer dollars. We look forward to putting this issue behind us. That way, we can all get back to work."
McFarlin's statement also included an attack on Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman and referred to COAST as a "local hate group" and accused it of improperly tweeting about black women.
Dennard, in a series of tweets, said:
"I owe the media absolutely nothing. However, I do owe the people I serve and who trusted me enough to put me in this seat an explanation. I take full responsibility for my actions and any part I played in real or perceived improper open meetings violations.
"My colleagues and I talked with one another through text messages about the political circus that was unfolding at City Hall, and how best to achieve a resolution. This was a mistake. There was NEVER any purposeful attempt to deceive the citizens of the City of Cincinnati.
"Once we understood that the five of us texting was a violation, those texts were immediately turned over to the law department. What you have seen unfold in the media is not about an open and transparent government. This ordeal is a vehicle to avenge political vendettas."
READ more Dennard tweets.
WCPO asked Shrive to comment on the Seelbach's attack on him.
"If anybody said those kinds of things about Mr. Seelbach, that person should apologize. It's certainly not coming from me," Shrive said.
Asked if Shrive and COAST spread hatred as Seelbach claimed, Shrive said: "No. COAST is a political action committee that has been harassed and maligned for years. It's unfortunate that instead of apologizing and moving on they want to attack."
Shrive said he agreed with Ruehlman's actions and questioned whether the Gang of Five should stay in office.
"Judge Ruehlman is known for calling it like he sees it and telling it straight, and everything he said I agree with," Shrive said. "I think its entirely appropriate for them to really consider their position in public office and whether its right for them to maintain power."
Shrive said Ruehlman should hold Young in contempt for deleting his texts.
"He (Young) did delete them after we requested them as a public record, and in discovery. so regardless, he is in contempt and should be held in contempt in my mind," Shrive said. "I think the judge is wise enough to see what needs to be done and I have full faith Judge Ruehlman will handle this appropriately."
Ruehlman set a contempt hearing for council members who did not turn over text messages at 9 a.m. on April 1.
Prosecutor Joe Deters, a Republican, said Ruehlman has the power to hold Young in contempt and send him to jail for violating his order and tampering with evidence.
Young admitted he deleted text messages, but his attorney, Scott Croswell. said in court that he did not delete any messages after the judge issued a court order to preserve the evidence.
“We cannot tell when Young’s text messages were deleted," Deters said. "Some text messages were in fact deleted.”
Shrive said the lawsuit served its purpose.
"The point of this lawsuit from the get-go was to make sure that the people of Cincinnati knew what their government was doing, and as Judge Ruehlman really wisely put it, for a year we had a charade of city council, and hopefully that charade is over now ... " Shrive said. "The important point is that people need to know what is really going on in these debates that happen at meetings need to be real debates and real discussion."
Shrive filed Miller's suit last spring after the five Cincinnati City Council members skipped a special public meeting during a worsening crisis at City Hall involving then-city Manager Harry Black and instead created a response strategy through secret text messages and emails.
“The whole problem here, things were done in the dark," Ruehlman said last month, announcing a tentative settlement to end the case. "And I think we've got to be as open as possible ... so nothing's secret."
The council quintet admit to violating Ohio’s Open Meeting Act by conducting public business in private text messages and emails with each other, according to the settlement agreement.
The five did not attend a special session of City Council called by Mayor John Cranley on March 16 to discuss whistleblower protection for city employees who allegedly were afraid Black would retaliate against them. With only four council members present, the meeting lacked a quorum so no public business could take place.
“So where do we go from here? Because if we can’t engage our colleagues to come to a special meeting of council, if they seem to not want to engage on this huge important matter to the city of Cincinnati, where do we go?” Councilwoman Amy Murray asked as she looked at the five open seats at the March 16 meeting.
In the group text messages they exchanged that day and in the weeks that followed, Young called the mayor a liar and a “little sucker,” Sittenfeld urged the former city manager to seek counseling and Seelbach said Black promised he would fix problems with the streetcar in exchange for Seelbach’s vote to keep him.
“I have been around a long time, and I've never seen a city council like this in my life,” said Deters. “I think it's going be embarrassing for some people, but they did it to themselves.”
Deters convened a grand jury in late 2018 and sent a sheriff’s deputy to City Hall with subpoenas for the five elected officials' cell phones. The city had already released about 80 pages of text messages exchanged in the council members' group chat between Jan. 19 and March 24, but not the ones exchanged in one-on-one textual conversations.
In late November, Judge Jody Luebbers agreed to appoint a "special master" to review all of the text messages sent among the five council members and determine which were relevant to the case.
Ruehlman said he would also investigate Dennard, who lost text messages when her phone reportedly fell into a swimming pool.
"Not the dog ate it, but the pool ate it,” Ruehlman said. “I’m going to look at that too."
Dennard denied that account Thursday and said she cooperated with the city in attempts to retrieve her messages.
I NEVER dropped my phone in a pool and I never said I did. The media’s thirst for click baits feeds their need for sensationalism. In August, I dropped my phone at a pool and it experienced water damage.
— Tamaya Dennard (@TDennard) March 7, 2019
The media did not report that three months prior to my phone being damaged, in May, I had already turned my phone over TWICE for the sought after data to be extracted by the City law department.
— Tamaya Dennard (@TDennard) March 7, 2019
The faulty equipment used by the city didn’t work to pull the messages. This was completely out of my control.When the data couldn’t be extracted through the City’s equipment, I was not concerned as I knew that I backed my phone up.
— Tamaya Dennard (@TDennard) March 7, 2019
I voluntarily turned over passwords to make sure those messages were retrieved without issue. There was NEVER any hesitation or trepidation on my part to do so.
— Tamaya Dennard (@TDennard) March 7, 2019