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Can Cincinnati recover from 'culture of corruption' reputation while bribery cases linger in court system?

Still no trial date in ex-Councilman Jeff Pastor's case, two and a half years after his arrest for bribery
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Posted at 4:36 PM, Apr 26, 2023

CINCINNATI — Cincinnati drew national attention in 2020 when the FBI arrested three City Council members on public corruption charges.

Now, as two of those cases still linger in federal court, experts say the city can’t move past the embarrassment or reputational damage until they finally end.

“I would compare it to the aftermath of a hurricane. The storm has already happened but there’s still rubble all about and things haven’t been rebuilt,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven.

Former prosecutor and ex-council member Steve Goodin said out-of-town investors, particularly ones in commercial real estate, are still hesitant to develop in Cincinnati despite its hot market.

“I don’t know that I want to work here or put my money here because of this climate — this culture of corruption that’s been in the national press for so long,” Goodin said, describing what investors tell him. “I just know from some of the folks that I deal with in my business that it has been a concern, that it has slowed investment and it’s something that we’re going to have to kind of crawl out from under.”

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Former Cincinnati City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard stands outside Downtown's federal courthouse, summer 2020.

The scandal began when the FBI arrested then council president pro tem Tamaya Dennard in February 2020 at a Downtown Starbucks before a committee meeting. Hours later U.S. Marshals escorted her into a U.S. District courtroom in shackles and handcuffs.

She pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud, admitting that she took $15,000 in exchange for her votes on development deals. In a tweet, then U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said she "treated a bribe as if it was a perk of the job."

A judge sentenced her to 18 months in prison. She served a year in prison, followed by time in a halfway house before the U.S. Bureau of Prisons released her from custody last year. She now works for the nonprofit Center for Employment Opportunities, which helps formerly incarcerated people find jobs.

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Cincinnati City Councilmember Tamaya Dennard serves Christmas dinner at St. Paul Lutheran Church.

“She literally can start the rebound and recovery process in her own life, while Sittenfeld and Pastor really are on this endless treadmill,” Niven said. “They can’t ever get off it while their cases are lingering, they can’t move on to anything else. They certainly can’t repair their names while they’re waiting for these cases to be resolved.”

Nine months after Dennard’s arrest, after the start of the pandemic and at the end of former Pres. Donald Trump’s administration, FBI agents arrested Pastor at his home in the early morning hours of Nov. 10.

A federal grand jury charged Pastor with wire fraud, bribery, attempted extortion, money laundering and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He is accused of taking $55,000 in bribes, and a luxury weekend trip to Miami on a private plane, in exchange for votes on two development deals.

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U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio David DeVillers announces charges being brought against Cincinnati City Council Member Jeff Pastor on Nov. 10, 2020 at the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Cincinnati.

“This indictment is indicative of a culture of corruption, a culture of extortion, a culture of pay-to-play,” DeVillers said at a press conference announcing Pastor’s indictment. He coined a phrase, “culture of corruption,” that became synonymous with the city of Cincinnati for years to come.

Afterward, Pastor kept a low profile and relied on his attorney Ben Dusing to do the talking, suggesting the FBI targeted his client because of his youth, political inexperience and naivete. And that his arrest only came after the quest to indict a bigger target failed.

Pastor was forced to find a new attorney after Dusing was temporarily suspended from practicing law in 2022. His current attorney, public defender Karen Savir, did not respond to a request for comment.

Attorney Ben Dusing and suspended City Councilman Jeff Pastor.
Attorney Ben Dusing and suspended City Councilman Jeff Pastor.

No trial date has been set in Pastor’s case. No recent pre-trial motions have been filed. And the only scheduled court hearing is a phone-in status conference set for May 31.

“When no trial date is set, typically it means there are some sort of plea discussions ongoing, including some sort of potential offer to cooperate in some way,” Goodin said, relying on his experience with criminal cases and the U.S. Attorney’s office.

A week after Pastor’s arrest, the corruption scandal spread to a third council member on Nov. 19, 2020. FBI agents arrested Sittenfeld, the presumptive front-runner in the next mayoral election, on charges he took $40,000 in donations to his political action committee (PAC) while promising to “deliver the votes,” on a project to redevelop Convention Place Mall.

Shellshocked council members and then-Mayor John Cranley spoke to reporters, as federal officials echoed that a “culture of corruption,” existed at City Hall.

These three council members may have acted separately but were “drinking from the same cup,” then special agent in charge Chris Hoffman said at a press conference.

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Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley addresses reporters after a third member of City Council was arrested Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020 on public corruption charges.

"If you read the indictments of Tamaya, Jeff and P.G., they're all bad," Cranley said at his own press conference that day. "It's hard not to conclude that, in Tamaya and Jeff's case, at least part of it was desperation for cash. In (Sittenfeld's) case, it seems to be to accumulate power for power's sake. And so, in many ways, it's worse. It's all bad. It's all sickening. It's all depressing."

A jury convicted Sittenfeld of bribery and attempted extortion last July after a three-week trial. Sittenfeld testified that he did nothing illegal by accepting campaign donations from undercover FBI agents who were posing as developers and championing their project to redevelop a blighted downtown property. But jurors didn’t believe him.

Sittenfeld’s attorneys launched a campaign to overturn the verdict and get a new trial or an acquittal. They attacked jurors for misconduct, U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole for his rulings, prosecutors for overreaching and the media for speaking in the hallway near jurors.

P.G. Sittenfeld undercover recordings

"This case has not been under-litigated," Cole said, during a hearing last December on Sittenfeld’s motions.

Five months later, Cole denied Sittenfeld’s motions in an April 17 order that sets the stage for the next phase of his legal quest before the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“It really does take away from a lot of the city’s day-to-day concerns,” said Goodin, who replaced Pastor and served on council for just over a year.

“Every time we’re talking about a P.G. Sittenfeld or a Tamaya Dennard we’re not talking about the rash of youth shootings … we’re not talking about the municipal pension plan which is in trouble,” Goodin said. “There’s all of these big things that we should be talking about, and instead we’re dealing with how developers interact with council members.”

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Goodin focuses on business litigation for the Graydon law firm downtown.

Cole asked the pre-sentence department to begin its investigation of Sittenfeld. The process usually takes three months, and results in a recommendation of how much time he should serve in prison.

Goodin predicts, based on sentencing guidelines, that Cole will order Sittenfeld to serve between 18 months and three years in prison.

“If there isn’t jail time, I’ll be very surprised. And if he is not serving that jail time yet this year, I would also be very surprised,” Goodin said.

Northern Kentucky University law professor Ken Katkin.
Northern Kentucky University law professor Ken Katkin.

But others aren’t so sure.

“It’s a question mark whether he’s going to have to go to prison soon after he’s sentenced, or whether he’ll be able to stay out of prison for the duration of the appeal,” said Northern Kentucky University law professor Ken Katkin. “The appeal will probably take a year, to a year and a half.”

Katkin has long thought that Sittenfeld could win his appeal in front of the conservative Sixth Circuit and overturn his conviction.

But the big question is whether Cole, or the Sixth Circuit, will allow Sittenfeld to delay reporting to prison in the meantime.

The high court will likely have plenty of public corruption appeals to consider soon.

The same Cincinnati courthouse hosted the public corruption trial of former House Speaker Larry Householder and ex-GOP chair Matt Borges this winter. A jury convicted both in March in a $1 billion bribery scheme — the largest in Ohio history.

Larry Householder speaks after guilty verdict
Larry Householder speaks after guilty verdict

Householder and Borges both said they would appeal their racketeering conspiracy convictions, which carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. The sentencing date has not been set.

With so many local public corruption convictions headed to the Sixth Circuit, Katkin said the high court will stay consistent in its rulings. Because all defendants will likely ask to stay out of prison pending appeal.

“If they let Sittenfeld stay out, they’ll let Householder stay out. I think if the Sixth Circuit is making the decisions, they won’t want them to be inconsistent decisions,” Katkin said.

The same three-person prosecutorial team that won convictions against Sittenfeld, Householder and Borges at trial, and led the case against Dennard, will now be focused on Pastor’s case.

And Niven said those past convictions should be a warning to Pastor.

Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder testifies in his own defense.
Former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder testifies in his own defense at public corruption trial on March 1, 2023.

“For Councilman Pastor the experience of Sittenfeld and Householder is a five-alarm fire,” Niven said. “It’s really hard for me to imagine that he’s optimistic about his case, and every aspect of Sittenfeld’s experience and Householder’s serves as a warning to him.”

Niven said it’s “unquestionable that Ohio has a lot of public corruption; that we’re easily above the national average.”

But Katkin said the crime isn’t more prevalent here; it just draws more attention. He attended both the Sittenfeld and Householder trials and heard FBI agents testify that public corruption was a top priority.

“When you’re a hammer everything looks like the nail, right? And I think that’s what we’re really seeing here,” Katkin said. “I think there will be more cases, but I really don’t think that necessarily reflects an unusual amount of corruption here.”

Regardless, these pending public corruption cases likely won’t be out of the spotlight in Cincinnati, and Ohio, for several years. Unless there are new ones.

“The real downside for Cincinnati is this story is unresolved,” Niven said. “We’re going to relive this, we’re going to replay it, we’re going to debate it, we’re going to question it. It can’t be over while these cases linger.”

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