CINCINNATI — Five Cincinnati City Council members have admitted breaking the law and the city has agreed to pay $101,000 to settle a lawsuit against them in the “Gang of Five” text messaging scandal.
The five Democrats - P.G. Sittenfeld, Greg Landsman, Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach and Wendell Young – admit violating Ohio’s Open Meeting Act by conducting public business in private text messages and emails with each other. Furthermore, Young admits deleting text messages from his cell phone in violation of Judge Robert Ruehlman’s order.
The tentative settlement, made public Monday, is expected to be approved by Ruehlman at a Thursday hearing. The judge has asked the five council members to be in court for that hearing.
The lawsuit was filed last spring by conservative local government watchdog Mark Miller, treasurer of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (known as COAST). Miller contended that the five agreed through text messages on a united position regarding the firing of then City Manager Harry Black without meeting in public.
The settlement calls for the city to pay Miller $1,000 as a statutory forfeiture for the Gang of Five’s text messages, $10,000 for Young’s deleting his text messages, and $90,000 in attorney fees.
Miller’s attorney, Brian Shrive, issued the following statement to WCPO Monday:
"Sunshine will once again be proven to be the best disinfectant. Cincinnatians will now know why their city council voted the way it did last year. The debates that should have taken place in public will now be available to the public. Through the agreement and the soon to be released emails and text messages, we have proven every allegation in the complaint and achieved our goal of transparency.”
WCPO has reached out to the five council members. They all declined to comment.
The settlement requires those council members to release their remaining texts and emails sent between Jan. 1 and Oct. 25, 2018.
At issue was how the five council members created two news releases that were sent to the media last March 16 and March 18. The group issued joint statements outlining their position on Mayor John Cranley’s request that Black resign.
Cranley asked the city manager to resign on March 9 citing retaliatory and abusive behavior by Black against city employees. This caused a deep fracture between four members of council who believed Black should be allowed to leave with a $423,000 severance payment, and five other members who are named in the lawsuit.
The five council members sent a joint statement to the media on March 16 asking that a special counsel be used to investigate the situation. A second statement, sent on March 18, reiterated their call for a ceasefire and their opposition to a big buyout settlement for Black.
The first news release caught the eye of Shrive as a “red flag,” because five council members had come to a decision about their stance on an important city issue, without ever attending a public meeting on the topic.
“A majority of council can’t come to a decision except in a public meeting,” Shrive said.
The lawsuit alleges a violation of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, which says all meetings of a public body must be open to the public. And the Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that “round robin texts” cannot be used to circumvent that law, he said.
“You can’t send a series of emails back and forth conducting business,” Shrive said.
Attached to the lawsuit were several emails — including one from Sittenfeld on March 16 to the other four members, with “draft letter” in the subject line.
None of the five council members included on the email chain were present during a special city council meeting the mayor called earlier in the day to discuss issues surrounding the city manager. But they spent most of the afternoon emailing, texting and calling one another to discuss the matter, according to public records WCPO obtained.
Miller’s suit demanded the release of all texts and emails exchanged among the five council members in 2018. Ruehlman ruled against a city appeal and set a Nov. 2 deadline for the messages’ release, which the group failed to meet. At that point, Shrive's law firm, Finney Law, filed a motion seeking to have all five held in contempt of court.They did release 80 pages of texts and emails shortly after the deadline. Another judge granted a request to have a court-appointed special master review all the texts and emails and determine which are relevant to the lawsuit.
Last month, Ruehlman had announced that a tentative settlement had been reached. Commenting at the time, the judge said the proposed deal is "pretty consistent with my original order.”
“The whole problem here, things were done in the dark," Ruehlman said. "And I think we've got to be as open as possible ... so nothing's secret."
On Feb. 15, Prosecutor Joe Deters, a Republican, raised the possibility that Ruehlman could hold Young in contempt of court for deleting his texts. Deters said he and Ruehlman discussed the issue of prosecuting Young and decided that it would be up to the judge to decide rather than Deters pursuing a tampering with evidence charge.
"The coverup is worse than what they did," Deters said.