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How downtown blight helped the FBI crack bribery case

Pastor indictment a new chapter for Convention Place Mall
ConventionPlaceMall.jpg
Posted at 11:20 AM, Nov 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-12 20:48:46-05

CINCINNATI — Federal prosecutors described this week’s arrest of Councilman Jeff Pastor as "indicative of a culture of corruption” at City Hall. But the case also sheds new light on one of Cincinnati’s most stubborn symbols of blight.

Convention Place Mall, an eight-story office and retail complex that brought squatters, drug users, mold and garbage to the corner of Fifth and Elm streets, has defied more than a decade of effort by city officials to revive a key corner that’s literally at the front door of the Tri-State’s convention industry.

Prosecutors allege Pastor accepted bribes to help a former Cincinnati Bengal gain control of the site so he could redevelop it. Chinedum Ndukwe, who became a real estate developer after leaving the NFL, worked as a “cooperating witness” for the FBI, US Attorney David DeVillers told reporters. Ndukwe’s attorney, Scott Croswell, said the Convention Place property at 435 Elm Street was “Project 2,” as it’s described in the 10-count indictment.

Pastor hired a new attorney today, who told I-Team Reporter Paula Christian that he's still evaluating evidence in the case.

RELATED: Pastor accused of taking $55,000 in exchange for votes

The I-Team has assembled a detailed history of the long-troubled property, using court records, interviews and City Hall emails, obtained in public record requests.

“Since assuming control of Convention Place Mall, the city has been burdened with a nonproductive property with significant deferred maintenance,” wrote former City Manager Patrick Duhaney in a memo to council in June 2019. “These circumstances have resulted in …losses in excess of $300,000 annually – a cost borne solely by the city.”

RELATED: City battles blight at front door of Duke Energy Center

That history includes:

  • A complicated ownership structure that began in 1983, when developer Harvey Cohen leased city-owned land to build retail and office buildings on a site that’s roughly two thirds of an acre.
  • Owner Ron Goldschmidt acquired the office building in 1990 and the retail center in 1999, court records show. Then, he caused a series of problems for the city – starting with tax delinquencies of “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in 2010, according to Duhaney’s memo to council.
  • When U.S. Bank sued Goldschmidt to foreclose on a $1.3 million loan in 2016, the city intervened in the case – quickly winning an order to terminate Goldschmidt’s leases. He’s been fighting eviction ever since.
  • City emails show the property had recurring problems with water leaks and mold, drug users and accumulating garbage while the court case dragged on. One of its former tenants was supplied with bottled water after complaining the building’s water service was contaminated.
  • After Ohio’s First District Appellate Court upheld the city’s right to terminate Goldschmidt’s leases, the city sold Convention Place Mall to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority. But even the Port has been unable to oust Goldschmidt. In an eviction case against three companies affiliated with Goldschmidt, his attorneys “deny that they have no right to remain on the property” in an April 1 filing.
  • Ndukwe has also failed to win in court against Goldschmidt. He bought U.S. Bank’s mortgage in 2017 and later won a $1.6 million judgment against companies affiliated with Goldschmidt. But his attempts to collect on that debt were rejected by the First District Court of Appeals in March.

Goldschmidt and his attorney declined to comment.

Ndukwe referred the I-Team’s inquiries to Croswell, who confirmed that the owner of Kingsley + Co. agreed to cooperate with the FBI because “he believes political corruption hurts everyone in the community and that it’s something that should not be tolerated.”

Croswell also said Ndukwe’s purchase of the U.S. Bank mortgage gave him development rights at Convention Place Mall.

“He owns the air rights of the building, which put him in control of the development of that site,” Croswell said. “His plans are to develop it. I think he’d like to put in a boutique hotel and some boutique commercial space.”

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 just like everything at Convention Place Mall, the ownership issues are complicated. Court records and City Hall emails show Ndukwe did not control the site but he was lobbying the city to grant him that control when he worked with FBI agents to solicit bribes from Pastor.

“Because Kingsley + Co. have an ownership interest in a portion of the existing building, we believe that we are best positioned to redevelop the site,” political consultant Jay Kinkaid wrote to city officials on Ndukwe’s behalf in January 2019. “We believe that all of this justifies the City entering into negotiations with us for the transfer of the land and redevelopment of the site.”

ConventionPlaceRendering.jpg
Rendering from January 2019 development proposal from Kingsley + CO.

Attached to the email was a development plan that included retail, office, hotel and apartment space on the site.

Kinkaid, who managed John Cranley’s 2017 mayoral campaign, said he hasn’t represented Ndukwe since April of 2019. He declined further comment.

The Port declined to comment on legal matters relating to Convention Place Mall, but CEO Laura Brunner told the I-Team it controls the site – not Ndukwe.

“We have full control of the site and own all rights to develop," Brunner said. "We are working through legal cleanup related to a former lease and getting former occupants removed from the site. Ultimately, we will be looking for a developer to enter into a ground lease for the vertical development.”

Kincaid’s 2019 email arrived at City Hall at a crucial point in the FBI’s investigation of Pastor, based on a timeline detailed in the 20-page indictment:

  • “Between September 2018 and November 2018, during recorded interactions, Pastor solicited and received $35,0000 … in exchange for promised official action related to projects before the city of Cincinnati,” the indictment states.
  • On Oct. 31, 2018, Pastor allegedly promised Ndukwe help with Convention Place Mall in a recorded phone call that included this statement: “The city will sell it to you and it will pass unanimously. That is my prophecy, my brother. You will come to the city; it will pass unanimously.”
  • The indictment further alleges Pastor asked Ndukwe on Jan. 15, 2019, to pay him $115,000 per year plus “points on the deal,” because there was “a lot of money to be made” on the redevelopment of Convention Place Mall.

Ironically, Pastor was part of a unanimous vote by city council to sell Convention Place Mall in June 2019. But it was the Port that gained control of the site with the transaction. Brunner said she was as surprised as the rest of the city when Ndukwe was identified this week as a cooperating witness.

“Yes, I had no knowledge of any entanglement of this project with an FBI investigation,” Brunner said.

Although she wouldn’t rule out a future partnership with Ndukwe to redevelop Convention Place Mall, she expects a competitive bidding process to select a developer in the next nine months.

“It’s unlikely it will be a single-purpose site,” Brunner said. “Because of the attractiveness of its location post-COVID, it’s more likely to be some combination of office, residential, retail, hotel.”