CINCINNATI — Nearly one year ago, the FBI arrested Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Pastor on public corruption charges.
Since then, Pastor has kept a low profile and not spoken publicly about his case.
But on Thursday, Pastor and his attorney, Ben Dusing, sat down only with WCPO, as Dusing spoke for the first time at length about this controversial case.
Although Pastor did not speak during the interview, Dusing said the arrest has been hard on him.
“Does something like this change you? Absolutely,” Dusing said. “You’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”
Pastor quietly agreed to a suspension from City Council last November as he awaits trial on a 10-count indictment accusing him of taking $55,000 in bribes in exchange for votes and influence on development deals.
“Mr. Pastor is still the same person that he was before,” Dusing said. “He’s still a man of character. He’s still a veteran of our armed services. He’s still a husband, father, friend.”
But that’s not how prosecutors described him in their corruption probe.
“This indictment is indicative of a culture of corruption, a culture of extortion, a culture of pay-to-play,” then-U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said at a press conference last November.
Dusing took issue with the government’s case against Pastor, a Republican who was serving his first term on council.
“There is way more truth here than the horrible-sounding facts that the U.S. Attorney’s office uses as sound bites at a press conference,” Dusing said.
During the hour-long interview, Dusing raised serious questions about the FBI’s role in the investigation.
For example, he said, Pastor never cast a vote in favor of either of the two development deals at the heart of the case – Convention Place Mall in Downtown and the Kennedy Connector project in Oakley – despite allegedly accepting bribes to advance them.
“If somebody paid Mr. Pastor for his vote, they made a very stupid decision, since the projects in question here were either, in one case, not voted on, or in the other case, was voted against by Mr. Pastor,” Dusing said. “So, the question probably is, if money was received, what was it for?”
Pastor, 37, and his business partner, Tyran Marshall, 36, are both charged in the public corruption case. Marshall allegedly acted as a middleman in receiving bribes, and Pastor used Marshall’s nonprofit, Ummah Strength, LLC to “sanitize” money, according to the indictment.
Pastor and Marshall flew to Miami in September 2018 on a private plane to meet with investors regarding a real estate development project. Pastor never paid for or disclosed the trip, according to the indictment.
But Pastor had no idea about the circumstances of this trip, Dusing said.
“If you are told that or invited to give a presentation on minority investment in the city … and then you find out on your way that the presentation is on a yacht,” Dusing said, “it does logically lead to some questions about the nature of the undercover operation.”
Dusing isn’t the only one who has raised questions about the FBI’s conduct in the City Hall corruption probe.
Attorneys for suspended City Councilman PG Sittenfeld, who is also awaiting trial on public corruption charges, accused FBI agents of misconduct.
In February court filings, Sittenfeld’s attorneys wrote that undercover agents held an Opening Day party at a government-rented penthouse in which young women who appeared to be underage were drinking with a developer who was working with the FBI as an informant.
A judge set a June trial date for Sittenfeld, who told WCPO last week that he intends to fight the charges until the very end.
The third council member arrested on corruption charges, Tamaya Dennard, is serving an 18-month prison term after she pleaded guilty.
Although a judge set a May 2 trial date in Pastor’s case, Dusing declined to say whether Pastor would face a jury and continue to plead not guilty.
“I’m not prepared to say one way or another,” Dusing said. “But I’m going to continue to evaluate the situation.”
He also suggested that Pastor could have a more difficult time in front of a jury than Sittenfeld.
“One major difference between Mr. Pastor and Mr. Sittenfeld’s case is my job is harder," Dusing said. "A jury is more likely to hear his (Sittenfeld’s) truth given he is a white male in a conservative area.”
This federal court district of normally conservative Southwest Ohio pools jurors from 10 counties stretching into Scioto and Lawrence.
Dusing also suggested that the FBI’s real targets when they began the corruption probe at City Hall were much higher-ranking public figures.
“Mr. Pastor, of just about anybody on council, is the most unlikely of bribery targets. If one wanted to obtain or purchase a vote or influence on city council, they’re not coming to his office first,” Dusing said. “Why of all the people on city council are these three people, especially my client, the ones that are indicted here?”
He also suggested the FBI targeted Pastor because of his youth, political inexperience and naivete. And that his arrest came only after the quest to indict a bigger target failed.
“When the federal government makes an investment in a prosecution, it would like to see a return on that investment,” Dusing said. “Let’s not be naïve.”