SYCAMORE TOWNSHIP — A local real estate developer has accused Sycamore Township Trustee Tom Weidman of soliciting bribes for proposed land deals in Kenwood between 2009 and 2012, according to a Hamilton County lawsuit filed April 12.
Morelia Group CEO Christopher Hildebrant alleges Weidman demanded payments from him after learning that Hildebrant had consulting deals with property owners who sold their land to Sycamore Township.
“When Mr. Hildebrant refused to pay the bribes that Weidman demanded, Weidman exacted revenge over a period of many years by using his power as a Township Trustee to prevent Mr. Hildebrant from conducting any real estate development business in Sycamore Township,” the complaint states. “Weidman’s retaliation peaked in 2019, when he prevented Plaintiff Morelia Group, which is operated by Mr. Hildebrant, from purchasing property owned by Sycamore Township for a planned commercial development project.”
The complaint comes two months after Weidman sued Hildebrant for defamation in Warren County. That complaint accuses Hildebrant of spreading a “vicious lie” about Weidman and creating a “fake email” to support his bribery claims.
The lawsuits represent the latest in a string of corruption allegations that toppled political careers from Cincinnati’s City Hall to the statehouse in Columbus. Unlike those cases, these allegations have not led to criminal charges against Weidman.
Hildebrant’s allegations were investigated by the Ohio Auditor’s public integrity unit last year. But that probe ended with no charges after Hildebrant invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to answer investigators’ questions, according to a “Case Closing Memo” from the Auditor’s office that was attached to Weidman’s lawsuit.
Now that the allegations are public, tension is on the rise in Sycamore’s local government, where public officials have been threatened with litigation and told to preserve records relating to the dispute. It also complicates the re-election prospects for Weidman, who is expected to seek his fourth 4-year term in office this November.
“I don’t know if the allegations are true or not,” said Trustee Tom James, who reported Hildebrant’s allegations to the Ohio Auditor in February 2020. “But if he did do it, he shouldn’t be there, absolutely not. This may have been years ago, but it still reflects on trust.”
Weidman “emphatically denies those allegations,” said attorney Todd McMurtry, who filed Weidman’s defamation lawsuit on Feb. 17. “Mr. Weidman cooperated fully with the Auditor’s investigation, including providing all of his emails and all of the documentation he could muster. And they chose not to proceed with that.”
McMurtry is the Northern Kentucky lawyer who represented former Covington Catholic student Nicholas Sandmann in a series of defamation lawsuits against the Washington Post and other media outlets.
His Warren County complaint alleges Hildebrant tried to bolster his claims by sending an email to himself that appeared to be from Weidman on Dec. 20, 2011.
“The Fake Email is full of lies designed to inflict psychic injury, cause severe emotional distress and defame Weidman,” said the complaint. “Hildebrant has admitted that he created the Fake Email.”
Hildebrant’s response to the Warren County lawsuit concedes he wrote the email and shared it with Township Administrator Ray Warrick, Trustee Jim LaBarbara and Ohio’s Auditor.
Weidman’s complaint alleges James, LaBarbara and Warrick “repeated the allegations made about Weidman to many others. Eventually, unbeknownst to Weidman, these allegations circulated widely in the community, severely damaging Weidman’s reputation.”
Hildebrant declined to comment through his attorney, Taft Law partner Russell Sayre.
James said he believes he acted properly when Hildebrant first told him about the alleged bribes in January 2020. That led to a second meeting in which Hildebrant showed emails that supported his claims to LaBarbara and Warrick. After conferring with the township’s legal counsel, James said he contacted the Auditor, the Ohio Ethics Commission and the FBI. The FBI and Ethics Commission declined to confirm or deny any investigation.
“We were all very angry about it if it were true,” James said. “We wanted an investigation.”
LaBarbara said Hildebrant showed him “six or seven emails … and he said he had more” to support his claims. He didn’t know until recently that Hildebrant created the December 2011 email, which LaBarbara considered the most damning of all the evidence he was shown.