CINCINNATI — Former Cincinnati City Councilman PG Sittenfeld turned down a plea deal in his public corruption case that could have exposed him to as much as two years in prison, or as little as probation with no time spent behind bars.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer revealed the rejected plea offer for the first time publicly during a pretrial conference on Wednesday. Prosecutors offered Sittenfeld the deal last fall.
Instead, Sittenfeld, a rising star in the Democratic Party and favorite to win the Cincinnati mayor’s race last year before his indictment, will face a jury trial on June 21 on six charges related to bribery, wire fraud and attempted extortion.
“For the sake of my family I’m looking forward to putting this behind me,” Sittenfeld said, as he walked into U.S. District Court with his attorneys, Charlie M. Rittgers and his father, Charlie H. Rittgers.
While the two-hour pretrial hearing was largely procedural, prosecutors did make another revelation: an undercover FBI agent involved in the case received a letter of censure for misconduct.
In court filings last year Sittenfeld’s attorneys accused undercover agents of misconduct,including that they held a party at a rented Downtown penthouse where underage young women were drinking alcohol.
Singer said he asked the FBI for a copy of the censure letter, but the agency considered it an internal document and would not turn it over without a court order. Then U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole promptly said he would sign that court order. The censure will no doubt come up at trial.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have already agreed not to disclose the agents’ real names to the public if they testify.
Cole set aside four weeks for the high-profile corruption trial and has 80 prospective jurors coming into the courthouse on June 21.
On Wednesday attorneys said the trial could take as little as two weeks: likely one week for the prosecution’s case and three to four days for the defense, which could stretch longer.
When Cole asked if Sittenfeld planned to testify, he gave his answer in a private conversation with the judge at the bench.
Cole said he intends to limit the number of interruptions during trial. He may hold a hearing next week to listen to testimony from certain witnesses before deciding what jurors will hear.
He also will limit the number of witnesses, mostly developers and business leaders,who can testify subjectively about how Sittenfeld’s past behavior asking for campaign donations made them feel, unless they are talking about specifics.
“We’re not trotting a bunch of witnesses up to say ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I sort of felt,’ or ‘I was getting a sense,’ … we’re not doing that, that’s not fair,” Cole said.
Cole said he may allow Sittenfeld’s lawyers to play other recordings to the jury which reveal a more complete pictureof what their client said to undercover agents, beyond what prosecutors will play in court. But the judge warned he would not allow the jury to listen to 20 additional hours of audio; he wants specific examples.
Cole also said he is inclined to let one witness, known as J.K., who is a former employee of Sittenfeld, testify at trial against objections by defense attorneys. That's because the witness will not testify about past acts by Sittenfeld; he will testify about actions that were part of the same alleged scheme or plan.
"That's unindicted conduct (by J.K.) ... and I think questions can be asked about why it was unindicted," Cole said.
The judge admitted that it may be difficult to guard the jury from bias that it is somehow unethical or wrong for candidates to ask for donations to a political action fund, or for candidates to ask for campaign contributions from people who have business before City Council, because all of that is legal behavior.
This is not a campaign finance violation case, prosecutors said repeatedly. It is an accusation of bribery.
And there is no good faith defense to the allegation, Cole said.
“Even if 95 percent of candidates are doing it, then maybe that means 95 percent of candidates are breaking the law,” Cole said.