CINCINNATI — Former Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld may not be running for mayor anymore, but he still has nearly $975,000 in leftover political donations that legal experts say he could use to pay legal fees for an appeal after a jury convicted him last week of bribery and attempted extortion.
Sittenfeld was a rising political star who mounted an impressive war chest to run for mayor in 2021. But three of his donors turned out to be undercover FBI agents who were posing as out-of-town developers. They donated $40,000 to his political action committee, called the Progress and Growth PAC, and asked for help on a downtown project, which prosecutors described as quid pro quo.
Sittenfeld will likely face two to three years in prison when U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole sentences him later this year.
In the meantime, legal experts are wondering how he’ll spend the nearly $975,000 that remains in his campaign fund and PAC combined. He could donate it to other candidates or charities, save it for a future political run, or spend some on legal bills.
“It’s kind of an ironic twist in the story … he could actually use the money he raised to try and fight the charges for improperly raising money,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven. “You can pay the legal bills pertaining to campaign activity from personal campaign accounts and PACs.”
The Sittenfeld for Cincinnati mayoral campaign fund contains $859,173, according to the most recent Ohio Campaign Finance Report from January.
The Progress and Growth PAC still contains $115,737 according to the most recent Federal Election Commission records.
“I do not know what P.G. intends to do with those funds. We never discussed it,” said Charlie H. Rittgers, who represented Sittenfeld at his three-week trial with his son, Charlie M. Rittgers.
Sittenfeld may not get to keep his PAC money, Niven said.
“There is a history of improper campaign activity resulting in PACS being fined and even shut down,” Niven said. “They (judges) can impose fines on the person and that could easily be a part of the sentence. They could also impose forfeiture rules on the PAC.”
A Federal Election Commission spokesman declined to comment on Sittenfeld’s PAC, but said enforcement cases originate internally, through outside complaints or by referral from other government agencies.
Experts say the government will likely demand repayment of the donations undercover FBI agents made to Sittenfeld’s PAC as part of the public corruption sting.
“It’s certain that the government will ask for $20,000 and probably $40,000 of it to be returned,” said Northern Kentucky University Law professor Ken Katkin.
The jury found Sittenfeld not guilty of two counts of wire fraud and one count each of bribery and attempted extortion related to donations from an undercover agent known as ‘Vinny’ who wanted help bringing sports betting to a prospective boutique hotel in Cincinnati. So theoretically the government should not be able to recover the $20,000 donation related to Sittenfeld’s exonerated charges, Katkin said, but he doubted Sittenfeld would make an issue of it at his sentencing hearing.
Katkin is uncertain whether Sittenfeld could use his PAC funds to pay for legal fees, and suggested he reach out to the FEC in advance to ask for permission. But both Niven and Katkin agree that his mayoral campaign fund money could be used to pay for legal fees and an appeal.
“I think he’s certain to appeal. I’d be astonished if he doesn’t. I think he has very good grounds to appeal,” Katkin said.
Rittgers would not discuss Sittenfeld’s appeal because the judge must first rule on several post-trial motions in the case. He did not want to give details about those motions but said they would be filed soon.