FBI secretly probed corruption in Cincinnati area since September 2017, three years before Sittenfeld arrest

FBI agent reveals how corruption probe at City Hall began
Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Gaffney Painter asks questions of FBI agent Nathan Holbrook in public corruption trial of P.G. Sittenfeld.
Posted at 8:21 PM, Jun 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-24 12:19:37-04

CINCINNATI — When FBI case agent Nathan Holbrook transferred from Indianapolis to the Cincinnati field office on January 4, 2018, he picked up several open public corruption cases because of his specialty in overseeing crime that is often difficult to prosecute.

Holbrook looked at files to see who could potentially be flipped to become a cooperating witness; he found Chinedum Ndukwe. The former Cincinnati Bengal turned real estate developer had an open criminal case from 2013 for allegedly using money orders and checks in others’ names to donate to local politicians.

“I determined him to be a source open to recruit,” Holbrook testified on Thursday during the public corruption trial of former Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.

From the witness stand, Holbrook answered some of the biggest questions that have hung over City Hall since three council members were arrested on separate public corruption charges in 2020. How did this case start, and who started it?

By mid-March, Ndukwe had signed a proffer agreement with the FBI, agreeing to work for them to root out potential corruption. The FBI paid him $27,000 in cash throughout 2018 and 2019 for his work on the Sittenfeld case and “multiple other investigations,” Holbrook said.

Holbrook also brought in two FBI undercover agents who had been working in the Cincinnati area since September 2017. He asked them to pose as wealthy investors in development deals “to determine what was going on in the city of Cincinnati.”

Those agents became known as Rob Miller, his business partner Brian Bennett and their boss, Vinnie.

In a secretly recorded meeting with Sittenfeld at Nada restaurant six months later, the agent known as Miller said they had just finished a development deal in Sycamore Township before moving to Cincinnati.

In February 2018, former Councilman Sam Malone set up multiple meetings to introduce the undercover agents to city leaders, Holbrook said, without explaining why Malone was helping the FBI. Malone served on the council from 2003 to 2005.

In early April, Holbrook asked Ndukwe “what else was going on in Cincinnati” as part of their proffer agreement, and Ndukwe mentioned that Sittenfeld had been requesting campaign donations from LLCs, according to Holbrook’s testimony.

A month later, in May 2018, Holbrook testified that he requested Sittenfeld’s phone records related to “other investigations.”

Ndukwe met with Sittenfeld in August 2018 and reported back to Holbrook that Sittenfeld had asked to introduce him to developers.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Gaffney Painter asks questions of FBI agent Nathan Holbrook in public corruption trial of P.G. Sittenfeld.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Gaffney Painter asks questions of FBI agent Nathan Holbrook in public corruption trial of P.G. Sittenfeld.

Then on Oct. 25, 2018, Ndukwe said Sittenfeld asked him for $10,000 from multiple LLCs “and he did not care where the money came from,” Holbrook testified.

Holbrook told Ndukwe to call Sittenfeld and record it for the FBI. That became the first of many recorded phone calls and videos that jurors heard and saw during the second day of testimony in this high-profile trial.

Several prominent names were mentioned in recorded calls played to the jury on Thursday: Alicia Reece, who is now a Hamilton County Commissioner and wanted to meet with one of the undercover agents with her father at a Bob Evans restaurant; Jared Kamrass, a fundraising consultant for Sittenfeld who is expected to testify; Jay Kincaid, a lobbyist for Ndukwe who is expected to testify; then council member Christopher Smitherman, who Holbrook suspected may run against Sittenfeld for mayor; and then-Mayor John Cranley, who Ndukwe and undercover agents said was trying to thwart their project because of a political grudge against Ndukwe.

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 from undercover FBI agents.

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.

Holbrook was on the witness stand all of Thursday, and he is expected to continue testifying for most of Friday. He will introduce dozens of secret audio and video recordings of Sittenfeld into evidence, which is a time-consuming process.

Jurors appeared to be riveted by the secret tapes, especially the four video recordings of Sittenfeld sitting at the kitchen island inside the penthouse apartment the two undercover agents rented at the 580 Building.

"The roof is basically non-existent, and the building is covered in black mold," The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority said in a June 15 court filing.

A hidden recording device was placed on the kitchen counter of the agents’ apartment, and Sittenfeld is seen having a beer, placing campaign donations inside his sport coat, and talking about how to further the Convention Place project.

The videos could be seen as beneficial to Sittenfeld because they show him repeatedly turning down donations from the undercover agents that are in the forms of money orders, $10,000 in cash, and checks from incorporated entities because he doesn’t want to break campaign finance rules, said Ken Katkin, a Northern Kentucky University law professor who is observing the trial.

The undercover agents also repeatedly offer to take Sittenfeld on trips to Miami or Nashville, and although he appears enthusiastic and said “keep me in the loop, that would be fun,” he never accepted a trip.

Sittenfeld also said he didn’t want to travel during the week because of scheduled council meetings: “I don’t want to be in the paper for ‘who has missed the most meetings,’ but I’ve only missed one.”

But the videos also reveal the intensity that Sittenfeld asked for campaign donations from the agents and the quick response he gave when they asked for help with their project: repeatedly saying he would speak to Cranley and then reporting back what he said; repeatedly saying he would call then-city economic development director Phil Denning; and saying he could “deliver the votes,” if the project came to city council.

To avoid obstacles at the city, Sittenfeld recommended bringing their project to council. If he encountered any resistance to Ndukwe’s role in the Convention Place project he said he would “shame them,” and ask, “why are you discriminating against a black developer.”

Jurors heard a recorded call between Ndukwe and Sittenfeld on Oct. 30, 2018, in which Sittenfeld asked for donations through multiple LLCs before the city law changed to limit those contributions.

“A lot of people have come through for me in a really big way," by rounding up multiple LLCs, Sittenfeld said, “North American did 12, Uptown did 10, Medpace did 10 and Model did 8,” referring to the donations he had already received from the city’s most prominent companies and developers.

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