CINCINNATI — The identities of the undercover FBI agents who posed as development investors to build a corruption case against former Cincinnati City Councilman PG Sittenfeld, will likely stay secret during his upcoming criminal trial.
In a joint motion filed on Monday in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati, both prosecutors and Sittenfeld’s attorney, Charlie Rittgers, agreed to only identify the three undercover agents by number, and not name, if they testify.
This is the first of many court motions that attorneys are expected to file in the coming weeks as Sittenfeld’s high-profile case moves toward a June 20 trial. The deadline for pretrial motions is April 28.
“The parties recognize that disclosing the true identities of the (undercover agents) UCEs, both pretrial and during trial itself, could result in substantial harm to the government and the UCEs individually … Rather, the parties shall refer to the UCEs as UCE-1, UCE-2, and UCE-3,” according to the motion.
Sittenfeld, a Democrat, had been considered the front-runner to win the 2021 Cincinnati mayoral race until the FBI arrested him in November 2020. A 20-page indictment charged him with two counts of honest services wire fraud, two counts of bribery and two counts of attempted extortion.
Federal officials alleged that Sittenfeld promised to deliver council votes in 2018 supporting a development deal at the former Convention Place Mall in exchange for four $5,000 contributions to his political action fund. Sittenfeld allegedly accepted four more checks in fall 2019 for a total of $40,000 in bribes.
“This is not a case about personal gain – the government does not allege that money went into Mr. Sittenfeld’s pockets,” Rittgers wrote in a motion to dismiss all charges.“Rather, the indictment alleges nothing more than that Mr. Sittenfeld engaged in the kind of routine conduct of elected officials in cities, counties and states across the nation.”
But prosecutors say what Sittenfeld did is a crime.
“It is not a defense to bribery that the public official would have done the official act anyway, even without payment; and receiving bribe payments through a PAC is no less corrupt,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer wrote in a court filing. “These actions are not … ‘everyday American democratic activity’—this is bribery.”
U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole approved the joint agreement to keep secret the identity of undercover agents secret on Wednesday.
The agreement also makes it highly likely that these undercover agents will testify at trial. Other potential witnesses include political lobbyists and strategists, developers and former and current City Hall staffers.
“The Parties agree that, if the government does not call UCE-1, UCE-2, or UCE-3 to testify at trial, the government will make any UCE who does not testify available for the defense to call as a witness, at any point the defense chooses,” the motion states.
In court filings Sittenfeld’s attorneys have alleged misconduct by the undercover FBI agents, including that they held a party at a rented penthouse where underage young women were drinking.
Prosecutors have agreed to disclose the true identities of the agents and their field office locations to defense attorneys 30 days before trial so they can investigate them "for impeachment information," under the condition that defense attorneys do not reveal it to the public, according to the motion.
But defense attorneys have agreed not to disclose the agents’ real names to the public.
Sittenfeld is the third council member the FBI arrested on public corruption charges in 2020.
Former Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard is serving an 18-month prison sentence after she pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud.
The FBI arrested former Councilman Jeff Pastor in November 2020 in a separate indictment on allegations that he took $55,000 in bribes from two developers during his first term on council. His co-defendant Tyran Marshall is accused of funneling bribes to Pastor through an LLC.
Pastor’s case had been set for a May 2 trial. But prosecutors asked for a delay after plea negotiations fell through. U.S. District Court Judge Matthew McFarland has not set a new trial date.
Another complication for Pastor is that his attorney, Ben Dusing, is temporarily suspended from practicing law by the Kentucky Supreme Court and the Ohio Supreme Court.