Prosecutors to rest case against P.G. Sittenfeld Wednesday

Chinedum Ndukwe: 'The City of Cincinnati has been extremely corrupt for a very long time'
P.G. Sittenfeld enters federal court for his pubilc corruption trial on June 28, 2022.
Posted at 7:12 PM, Jun 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-29 09:12:01-04

CINCINNATI — Lobbyist Jay Kincaid warned his longtime friend P.G. Sittenfeld to “steer clear” of two out-of-town developers who descended on Cincinnati City Hall in 2018, bragging about their money, offering cash campaign donations and offering to take elected officials on trips to Miami.

One developer, Rob Miller, had a perfectly groomed 5 o’clock shadow and wore more jewelry than Kincaid said he had ever seen on a man, much less a typical understated, casually dressed real-life developer.

“They were so over the top … could they be FBI agents?" Kincaid asked Sittenfeld in 2018. “I advised him not to take any (campaign donations) and to steer clear … They just didn’t look the part, something felt off.”

It turns out that Rob Miller, his partner Brian Bennett, and their boss, Vinny, were undercover FBI agents who built public corruption indictments against Sittenfeld and another former councilman, Jeff Pastor, in separate probes at City Hall in 2018 and 2019. All three FBI agents testified this week in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati at Sittenfeld’s trial where prosecutors revealed dozens of secret audio recordings and hidden videos of meetings.

The irony of Kincaid’s testimony was not lost on defense attorney Charlie H. Rittgers.

“You told P.G. to stay away from them. That’s sound advice as we sit here today,” Rittgers said, during his cross-examination of Kincaid.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter delivers her opening statement in corruption trial of P.G. Sittenfeld.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter delivers her opening statement in corruption trial of P.G. Sittenfeld.

Tuesday’s testimony peeled back the curtain on City Hall in a way that political experts had predicted since the trial began last week. Witnesses revealed the intense co-mingling of elected leaders with monied real estate developers, particularly at political fundraisers.

Sittenfeld faces six charges related to public corruption, including bribery and attempted extortion. He is accused of taking $40,000 in campaign donations from undercover FBI agents in exchange for “official acts,” he took to help their development deal at Convention Place Mall downtown.

Kincaid — who managed campaigns for former Mayor John Cranley, served as Cranley’s chief of staff and then became a lobbyist — gave a unique perspective on the inner workings of City Hall.

At a lunch with Sittenfeld in late November 2017 after Cranley had won re-election as mayor, he testified that Sittenfeld was gearing up for his own mayoral run in 2021. He testified that Sittenfeld wanted lobbyist Chip Gerhardt, CEO of Government Strategies Group, to donate only to him.

“If he hedges on my campaign, I’ll hedge on his clients,” when he became mayor, Kincaid testified that Sittenfeld told him.

Former Cincinnati Bengal turned real estate developer Chinedum Ndukwe testifies against P.G. Sittenfeld on June 28, 2022.
Former Cincinnati Bengal turned real estate developer Chinedum Ndukwe testifies against P.G. Sittenfeld on June 28, 2022.

Kincaid also testified about Chinedum Ndukwe, the former Cincinnati Bengal turned real estate developer, who was the government’s cooperating witness against Sittenfeld.

He testified that Cranley and Ndukwe had a falling out after Ndukwe tore down a building in Clifton without a permit. It became a huge problem for the city and potentially a criminal issue.

“He wanted the mayor and I to intercede and to make the problem go away,” Kincaid testified, but that didn’t happen and the city fined Ndukwe $25,000.

“Chin called me and said, ‘I don’t feel I’m getting a return on my investment for campaign contributions to the mayor … if that doesn’t change, I’ll have to reconsider my support,” Kincaid testified, who then said he told Cranley about the exchange and said the mayor told him, “I’m done with Chin.”

But Ndukwe gave a very different version of his experience at City Hall when he testified earlier on Tuesday.

“I learned early that … in order to be considered an impactful developer in the community, you had to donate to politicians,” Ndukwe testified.

Ndukwe testified that he withdrew his own money and put it in the names of friends and family to donate to local politicians in order to evade campaign finance rules, including 15 money orders he gave as donations to Cranley’s first mayoral campaign in 2013.

“He knew good and well they all came from me,” Ndukwe said about Cranley.

But Cranley responded in a statement to WCPO, “I never evaded or tried to evade campaign limits. I even met Chin’s dad and thanked him for his help.”

Those contributions caught the eye of FBI agents, who reached out to Ndukwe in early 2018 to question him. Ndukwe began working for the FBI as a cooperating witness in March 2018, after signing a proffer agreement and admitting that he could be prosecuted for money laundering, aggravated identity theft and structured bank transactions.

Sittenfeld became an FBI target after he called Ndukwe in April 2018 to say he was asking each developer for a $10,000 campaign donation and suggested he round up LLCs for those donations, and suggesting that he wouldn’t help on his future projects unless he contributed, Ndukwe testified.

Ndukwe introduced the undercover FBI agents, who were posing as developers in the Convention Place Mall project, at a Nov. 7, 2018 lunch at Nada restaurant downtown. They were posing as investors in the real-life project that Ndukwe said he had bought a stake in and was trying to develop with the city’s financial help.

Ndukwe said he purchased air rights to the property and wanted a development agreement from the city to turn it into a mixed-use development with a hotel, high-end apartments, retail and office space. But he believed Cranley’s grudge was hurting the project from moving forward and that Laura Brunner, CEO, of The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, was also treating him unfairly.

“I think the City of Cincinnati has been extremely corrupt for a very long time now,” Ndukwe testified.

But Kincaid, who testified that he worked as a lobbyist both for the Port and for Ndukwe simultaneously, said Brunner had reservations about giving such a large, complicated project to Ndukwe.

Brunner is expected to testify on Wednesday, along with political fundraiser Jared Kamrass who opened Sittenfeld’s PAC and advised him on how to take donations from the FBI agents.

Prosecutors are expected to rest their case by midday.

Sittenfeld’s attorneys said they planned to call 13 character witnesses. But U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole said he would not allow that many to testify.

“We’re not going to have 13,” Cole said, implying that he would limit it to three character witnesses.

It is unknown whether Sittenfeld will testify.

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