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FBI paid informant Chinedum Ndukwe $27K to wear wire at City Hall for 18 months

Prosecutors call first witnesses in Sittenfeld trial
Former Councilman Kevin Flynn testifies at the public corruption trial of P.G. Sittenfeld
Posted at 6:22 PM, Jun 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-22 18:22:53-04

CINCINNATI  — After listening to nearly three hours of opening statements in the public corruption trial of P.G. Sittenfeld, at least one juror appeared to be nodding off in the jury box as attorneys described the inner workings of Cincinnati City Hall, campaign fundraising and development deals.

Both sides outlined their cases and described what jurors will hear during the two-week trial at U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.

“This case is about an ambitious politician who betrayed his service and the citizens he was elected to serve,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter. “The defendant broke the law and because of what he did, he’s guilty as charged.”

But Sittenfeld’s attorney, Charlie M. Rittgers, said context is important in this case because, “partial truth is no truth at all.”

Sittenfeld, who has maintained his innocence, was a rising political star and the front-runner to be the next mayor of Cincinnati before FBI agents arrested him in November 2020 for allegedly promising support and “official acts,” to help the development of Convention Place downtown in exchange for $40,000 in campaign donations.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter delivers her opening statement in corruption trial of P.G. Sittenfeld.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter delivers her opening statement in corruption trial of P.G. Sittenfeld.

He faces six charges related to public corruption, including bribery and attempted extortion, and could be sentenced to five to six years in prison if convicted.

Rittgers’ opening statement focused heavily on the credibility of the key cooperating witness against Sittenfeld: Chinedum Ndukwe.

Ndukwe, a former Cincinnati Bengal turned real estate developer, introduced Sittenfeld to the two undercover FBI agents who were posing as investors who wanted to redevelop the blighted Convention Place Mall downtown. He also recorded several phone calls with Sittenfeld, some of which Rittgers played for jurors on Wednesday.

The two men had been friends for eight years, Rittgers said. But that changed when the FBI told Ndukwe in January 2018 that he was under investigation for several crimes including money laundering.

Charlie M. Rittgers, an attorney for P.G. Sittenfeld, in his opening statement to jurors.
Charlie M. Rittgers, an attorney for P.G. Sittenfeld, in his opening statement to jurors.

Ndukwe began cooperating with the FBI in March 2018, helping to build cases against Sittenfeld and former Councilman Jeff Pastor, who is awaiting trial on separate corruption charges, according to court filings.

At press conferences in 2020, prosecutors praised Ndukwe for having the courage to come forward and root out corruption at City Hall.

Former U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said the FBI approached Ndukwe because he was “in a position to be able to be extorted, quite frankly.” He told investigators he was tired of “being shaken down” while pursuing development projects in the city, DeVillers added.

But Rittgers described a different scenario, saying that Ndukwe had confessed to campaign finance violations and making false statements and that’s why he became a cooperating witness.

Ndukwe secretly recorded phone calls with Sittenfeld, some of which Rittgers played for jurors on Wednesday. These recordings will be crucial to the case and over the coming days, jurors will hear many of them.

PG Sittenfeld walks into court for his public corruption trial
PG Sittenfeld walks into court for his public corruption trial

The recordings are “the unfiltered words of the defendant when he didn’t know his words would be heard in a courtroom by a jury,” Glatfelter said.

But in 20 hours of secret recordings there is no express quid pro quo by Sittenfeld, Rittgers said.

Prosecutors say they don’t have to prove that Sittenfeld directly said he would trade votes for campaign donations.

“This will be more subtle,” Glatfelter said.

Prosecutors called their first two witnesses on Wednesday afternoon: former Cincinnati City Councilman Kevin Flynn, who described how City Hall works, and the city’s former Department of Community and Economic Development director Phil Denning, who explained city policies on development deals. Denning is now an executive vice president at the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority.

Rittgers is trying to portray Sitteneld as a pro-development leader who wanted to help Ndukwe and undercover agents win development rights to Convention Place because it would help the city revive a key corner that’s literally at the front door of the Tri-State’s convention industry.

But Ndukwe did not have the financing, capacity or plans to properly develop the project, Denning said, and giving him the rights to develop it “was not in the public’s best interest.”

Denning also disputed Ndukwe’s claim, made by Rittgers, that Ndukwe owned air rights to Convention Place.

On Thursday, jurors will hear the testimony of FBI Special Agent Nathan Holbrook, who was led the case against Sittenfeld.