CINCINNATI — Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld announced he will step down "temporarily" from his seat as he faces several charges in a federal bribery case.
In a video statement Sittenfeld tweeted Monday morning, he said he felt it was necessary for him to step down so he could "aggressively pursue clearing" his name.
We're going to fight these false allegations, show my innocence, and when we do, I can't wait to get back to work for our city. pic.twitter.com/feAUiTlPPy— P.G. Sittenfeld (@PGSittenfeld) December 7, 2020
A federal grand jury indicted Sittenfeld, 36, last month on charges of honest services wire fraud, bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds and attempted extortion under color of official right.
Sittenfeld pleaded not guilty when he was arraigned in federal court and has maintained his innocence.
“Enduring false allegations, inaccurate stories and having some folks not be willing to wait to get the complete and accurate facts has been painful for me and for those around me … I can promise you no one is more eager than I am for all of the facts to come to light and for the truth to be revealed because I know it will show my innocence,” Sittenfeld said.
U.S. District Judge Douglas R. Cole approved the suspension "effective immediately" on Monday.
Judge Ralph Winkler said Sittenfeld’s replacement will be one of the most important appointments he’ll have to make.
“I’m looking for somebody that looks out for the people of Cincinnati … I am also looking for somebody that is not divisive because that’s the last thing we need right now,” Winkler said. “We need unity between everybody on Council.”
Winkler said he is considering the following candidates to replace Sittenfeld:
- Liz Keating
- Bertie Garcia Helmick
- Ruth Kelly
- Rayshon Mack
- Gary Favors
- Kevin Flynn
- Jim Neil
- Guy Guckenberger
- Jake Samad
- Bill Burwinkel
Though no decisions have been made, Winkler said he is leaning toward appointing someone who will add diversity to City Council.
Winkler likely won’t make an appointment until next week; he’s still waiting on the official notice from a federal judge.
This is the second appointment Winkler will make within a roughly two-week span: Last week, Winkler appointed Steve Goodin to serve as Councilman Jeff Pastor's temporary replacement. Like Sittenfeld, Pastor also faces federal public corruption charges and voluntarily took temporary suspension pending those proceedings.
It's not something Winkler said he's particularly happy about.
"I don't like that it's happened this way," he said. "I think the best way is by letting the voters decide, but I'm being forced into this by what's going on."
The appointment marks a grim milestone for City Hall. Right now, three council members have been appointed, instead of elected by voters. This new vacancy will mean four out of the nine members in Cincinnati's City Council have been appointed.
Gwen McFarlin, chair of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, released a statement Monday saying the party is disappointed Sittenfeld accepted a suspension and did not resign instead.
“While P.G. Sittenfeld deserves the chance to respond to the charges brought against him, we are extremely disappointed he accepted a suspension rather than resigning,” McFarlin said. “As a result of his unfortunate decision, his fellow Democrats on Cincinnati City Council cannot name his replacement who will serve many months of his remaining term.
“The Cincinnati Democratic Committee and Hamilton County Democratic Party are focused on endorsing qualified, competent candidates for City Council and Mayor. We need leaders who will support our incumbent Democratic councilmembers and support comprehensive reforms in both city government and public service. We must and will restore the public’s trust in our local government.”
Per Ohio statute, the Hamilton County Probate Court appoints a Cincinnati City Council member's replacement in the case of a suspension. If Sittenfeld is found guilty of the charges or resigns in the meantime, a Democrat on Council would select his replacement rather than Winkler, a Republican.
Sittenfeld is accused of accepting $40,000 in eight checks in 2018 and 2019 while promising to “deliver the votes” in regard to a development project before city council. Officials said Sittenfeld “corruptly solicited” payments and received them in a PAC (a political fund).
Sittenfeld's indictment was the most recent of three to rock Cincinnati City Hall this year.
Federal agents arrested former Cincinnati City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard in February on federal bribery charges. Dennard pleaded guilty in June to honest services wire fraud for taking $15,000 in exchange for votes on council, and U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott sentenced Dennard to 18 months in prison on Nov. 24. Dennard’s sentence is suspended until March 1 because of the pandemic.
The announcement of Sittenfeld's arrest came just nine days after agents arrested now-suspended Pastor on federal bribery charges. Pastor is accused of taking $55,000 in bribes over the course of about a year in exchange for votes related to development projects in the city.