CINCINNATI — Prosecutors call it a secret slush fund where Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld deposited $40,000 from undercover FBI agents, allegedly in exchange for his support on a Downtown development project.
But Sittenfeld’s attorney, Charlie Rittgers, said the PAC at the heart of the government’s corruption case is legal, transparent and follows Federal Election Commission rules.
What U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole believes about Sittenfeld’s political action committee, which is named the Progress and Growth PAC, could determine his fate.
Sittenfeld, a Democrat, had been considered the front-runner to win this year’s Cincinnati mayoral race until the FBI arrested him in November. A 20-page indictment charged Sittenfeld with two counts of honest services wire fraud, two counts of bribery and two counts of attempted extortion.
“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 recent court filing. “These actions are not … ‘everyday American democratic activity’—this is bribery.”
Cole will rule on a motion to dismiss Sittenfeld's charges after a Feb. 16 hearing. If the charges stand, it could be one to two years before he faces a jury due to COVID trial delays at all courthouses. And by then, experts say, his political future could be derailed regardless of the outcome in court.
"What’s damaging for him is he had this sort of golden political run in Cincinnati," said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven. "That aura around him has been pierced and he’s not getting that back even if the charges go away tomorrow."
Sittenfeld is the third Cincinnati City Council member charged in 2020 with separate bribery cases.
Former Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard, a Democrat, pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud and is scheduled to begin serving her 18-month prison sentence in March.
Suspended Councilman Jeffrey Pastor, a Republican, is awaiting trial for allegedly taking $55,000 in bribes in exchange for his votes on development deals.
But experts say Sittenfeld’s case is different from Dennard’s and Pastor’s, in part because he allegedly asked for donations to his PAC, and not money for personal use. Experts also question whether prosecutors can prove that he performed an official action to benefit the project that is tied to those donations.
“For Pastor and Dennard, (prosecutors) had explicitly ‘Give me this, and I’ll do that.’ They had that. They don’t have that on Sittenfeld,” Niven said. “They have this murky gray area that, in honesty, every single political officeholder has had a variation of this conversation in which they ask for money (from donors).”
Sittenfeld's parents, Betsy and Paul Sittenfeld, were two of the first to donate to the Progress and Growth PAC in February 2018, with $5,000 contributions each.
Over nearly three years, many developers, Sittenfeld loyalists and others gave money to the PAC, and $271,905 was collected in total, according tothe FEC website which lists each donation.
The PAC is separate from the $716,000 Sittenfeld amassed in his campaign fund, according to his most recent filing with the Hamilton County Board of Elections.
“This is the sign of somebody with aspirations," said Niven, who reviewed the Progress and Growth PAC. "If you just want to be on the Cincinnati City Council, you don’t need a political action committee, you don’t need to raise all this money and then give it to other candidates. But when you have aspirations to run beyond the city … you want to build those relationships.”
The PAC donated roughly $90,000 to mostly local candidates, political parties, causes and PACs. A handful of donations went to candidates as far away as New York and California, according to the FEC.
After Sittenfeld’s indictment, many local candidates said they donated his PAC money to charity, including Cincinnati City Councilman Greg Landsman, Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus, Hamilton County Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey, and Ohio Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Brunner, as well as the Hamilton County and Ohio Democratic parties.
David Pepper, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said the party donated the $4,500 it received from Sittenfeld’s PAC to the Freestore Foodbank.
“Given the questions over the way the money was raised, and given the needs of people struggling right now, giving it to the Free Store is the right thing to do,” Pepper said. “It’s also consistent with what we’ve demanded of other political figures, like Rob Portman, when they’ve raised funds from tainted sources.”
The Progress and Growth PAC also spent thousands on tickets to community events, donations to charity and compliance expenses such as legal fees and accounting.
The PAC spent nearly $3,000 on mostly inexpensive restaurant meals in 2018 and 2019 that were listed as “stakeholder meetings” in FEC reports.
Niven, who worked on campaigns for candidates with PACS, said Sittenfeld's spending was “within the realm of normal.” While PAC money can’t be used for direct campaign expenses, such as TV ads, it can be spent on meals and travel for outreach and information gathering, Niven said.
“The gray area is, well you were going to eat dinner anyways weren't you, why does your PAC have to pay for it,” Niven said. “This is not a high-level use of the PAC money relative to what some other candidates do.”
The meal spending from the PAC stopped in late December 2019. After Dennard was indicted in February 2020, there was no PAC spending on stakeholder meeting meals until September and no travel expenses for the year, according to FEC reports.
After Dennard’s indictment, Niven said, many politicians took notice.
“Anybody in Cincinnati politics," Niven said. "Their attention to detail for all of their fundraising and all of their involvement with political money went up.”
While Sittenfeld is not charged with misusing campaign money, prosecutors said his secret control of the PAC is relevant to the entire alleged scheme.
“The purpose of his PAC was to be isolated from him,” U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said at a November press conference. “You can have your campaign fund, but when you have a PAC you can’t directly be involved in that PAC. You can’t directly control it. … and according to his statements within the indictment allegations, that’s exactly what he was doing.”
But Sittenfeld’s attorney disputes the government’s account and in a recent court filing wrote, “The indictment and the government’s own public voices have falsely misled the public … that Mr. Sittenfeld unlawfully and secretly hid his connection to his PAC, that he received hidden contributions … and that he unlawfully and secretly controlled it as a slush fund for his personal use. None of that is true.”
Niven said the PAC was likely meant to stay private.
"It wasn't meant to ever be scrutinized," he said. "That's not say it was illegitimate. It was just not meant for public consumption."
In the indictment, Sittenfeld told undercover FBI agents, “There is a PAC … that my name is not connected to. One, basically, no one knows about it. And two, my name and no filings, and no paperwork, and no anything is connected to it. And instead of those (campaign) limits being $1,100, someone can give up to $5,000 to that.”
Contributions to the Progress and Growth PAC stopped on Nov. 7, roughly a week before Sittenfeld’s indictment was unsealed. It still has $120,762 as cash on hand, according to the most recent FEC report.
Sittenfeld could choose to donate that money to charity or save it for a future campaign, Niven said.
“There are tons and tons of essentially dormant PAC accounts that could just sit there for years … and be there when the owner is ready to act again,” Niven said.
Northern Kentucky University law professor Ken Katkin said he believes Sittenfeld could be exonerated at trial or on appeal. Katkin said he had met Sittenfeld a few times at Princeton University Alumni Association events, so he decided to delve into the indictment.
“The prosecutors have alleged that he did engage in a quid pro quo exchange," Katkin said. "I don’t think the recorded conversations that they put in the indictment bear that out."
The indictment includes pieces of recorded conversations between Sittenfeld and a cooperating witness, former Cincinnati Bengals player and developer Chinedum Ndukwe, along with two undercover federal agents posing as investors, about a project at Convention Place Mall.
Sittenfeld said he could use zoning codes to create a controlled environment so the project could have sports gambling, and use his clout at City Hall to win votes for the project, according to prosecutors.
He told the undercover agents that he “can move more votes than any other single person…,” and “Don’t let these be my famous last words, but I can always get a vote to my left or a vote to my right,” according to the indictment.
But Katkin said the evidence prosecutors have revealed so far in the indictment isn’t enough to win a conviction at trial.
“I just don’t see that there’s any basis for saying that he sold a vote or even any mechanism for which he could have controlled the votes of his fellow council members,” Katkin said.
But prosecutors disagree.
“We don’t have to prove … an express quid pro quo,” DeVillers said at the November press conference. “We’re alleging that there was a quid pro quo in this case, don’t get me wrong, but what we have to prove is an implicit agreement … You have to look at what else is going on here. Are they trying to hide the proceeds of how this money is coming in?”
If Sittenfeld is exonerated, Niven said, he could make another run for public office and the PAC money could help him.
“This could be the comeback account,” Niven said. “You never want to write somebody off, because people like redemption stories, people like comeback stories.”