Prosecutors: Witness may testify to 'subtle message of extortion' by ex-Councilman PG Sittenfeld

Court filing reveals FBI interviews
PG Sittenfeld outside federal courthouse Sept. 7, 2021.png
Posted at 10:59 AM, Apr 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-13 19:59:09-04

CINCINNATI — As many as seven businesspersons and people who had business at City Hall may testify against former Cincinnati City Councilman PG Sittenfeld at his upcoming public corruption trial to accuse him of being heavy-handed and inappropriate in asking for political donations and using a “subtle message of extortion,’’ according to a government court filing.

In a court motion filed on Tuesday, federal prosecutors revealed for the first time the extent of their case against Sittenfeld, who was a rising political star and the front-runner to be the next Cincinnati mayor before FBI agents arrested him in November 2020.

Sittenfeld has steadfastly maintained his innocence. But FBI agents said he promised to deliver council votes on development deals in exchange for $40,000 in donations to his political action fund.

FBI agents interviewed developers and donors who frequently did business at City Hall. Prosecutors summarized those interviews for Sittenfeld’s attorneys during two meetings last August and September. Some of those interviews could be admissible at trial as showing prior behavior from Sittenfeld, according to the motion.

“Those individuals told the FBI, in part: the defendant was heavy-handed and inappropriate in his solicitation of contributions; a businessperson felt compelled to contribute because the defendant could make life miserable as the next mayor; the defendant communicated a subtle message of extortion in soliciting contributions; a businessperson did not want to contribute to the defendant but did so because the defendant indicated he was going to be the next mayor,” according to the government’s court filing.

One businessperson was “taken aback by how blunt and upfront,” Sittenfeld was during a meeting in which he asked for contributions and that Sittenfeld “threatened to withhold his vote for a project unless the businessperson contributed a substantial amount of money to a private third-party entity aligned with the defendant,” according to the government court filing.

Prosecutors filed the document in response to a motion by Sittenfeld’s attorney asking U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole to force the government to turn over more evidence. They specifically want details of FBI interviews with developers and donors that could be favorable to their defense.

“We have evidence that a number of those interviews revealed to the FBI that PG was never even near the line of corruption in the years of interaction with him. Yet we do not have any notes or even mention of these people the FBI interviewed and contacted – let alone the exculpatory information,” Sittenfeld’s attorney Charlie Rittgers wrote in a motion to compel evidence.

Rittgers is also seeking information about the expense incurred by agents during their undercover operation at City Hall, “including but not limited to the cost of the penthouse, drinks, dinner, entertainment, travel, including trips to Miami, Florida with other City Council members, tips to waitresses and bartenders,” according to Rittgers motion to compel.

But prosecutors say they don’t have to reveal the cost of the probe because “the costs spent investigating corruption in Ohio simply are not material to guilt or innocence in this case,” according to their filing.

These are the latest in competing, back-and-forth court filings in this high-profile case. Attorneys will likely file more motions in the coming weeks arguing about what evidence jurors should hear at the trial, which is set for June 20 and expected to last three to four weeks.

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. She has asked a judge to reduce her sentence so that she can leave prison early.

Suspended Councilman Jeff Pastor’s trial had been set for May 2, but it has been delayed. Pastor’s attorney, Ben Dusing, is temporarily suspended from practicing law in Kentucky and Ohio. The FBI arrested Pastor last November on charges that he took $55,000 in bribes from two developers during his first term on council.

A week after Pastor’s arrest in November 2020, FBI agents arrested Sittenfeld in a separate corruption case. A 20-page indictment charged Sittenfeld with two counts of honest services wire fraud, two counts of bribery and two counts of attempted extortion.

“I’m eager to move forward and I’m very confident that when the full facts come out, I’ll be completely exonerated,” Sittenfeld told WCPO in September 2021. “We’re going to fight this to the very end.”

PG Sittenfeld outside federal courthouse Sept. 7, 2021.png
PG Sittenfeld walks to U.S. District Court with attorneys Charles H. Rittgers and Charlie M. Rittgers

Rittgers has attacked the government’s motivations for its investigation into Sittenfeld and accused agents of misconduct in repeated court filings. He also asked for the identity of witnesses who may testify against Sittenfeld, whom prosecutors have refused to name.

“The government’s obligation to protect witnesses exists whether the defendant is violent or not. In corruption cases specifically, witnesses are often reluctant to speak to agents out of fear that cooperation against a current or former public official will ultimately harm their business, their reputation, or their relationships with other government officials. Commonly, potential witnesses tell the government that they have relevant information but ask to remain anonymous. The government thus has an obligation to protect those with the courage to come forward,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer wrote in the court filing.

Prosecutors said they have already turned over lined sheets of text messages between undercover agents and Sittenfeld to defense attorneys and will supply more messages involving undercover agents and other potential witnesses on a rolling basis.

Prosecutors will turn over their agent reports of interviews of developers and donors to defense attorneys on April 20, which is 60 days before trial, according to their court filing.

“Contrary to the defendant’s claim, the same criminal discovery rules apply regardless of the charge—there are no special rules for white-collar defendants. The defendant’s motion should be denied,” Singer wrote.