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Verdict reached in P.G. Sittenfeld's public corruption trial

Former Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld arrives at the federal courthouse for his public corruption trial on July 6, 2022.
Posted at 7:42 PM, Jul 06, 2022

CINCINNATI — A jury has found former Cincinnati councilmember PG Sittenfeld guilty on one charge of bribery and one charge of attempted extortion. He was found not guilty of both counts of honest services wire fraud and one count each of attempted bribery and extortion.

He likely won't face sentencing for months.

Sittenfeld put his head down as the verdict was read.

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The jury of nine women and three men listened to closing statements from attorneys for nearly six hours Wednesday before going into the jury room at 3:45 p.m. They left for the day at 5 p.m., resumed deliberations Thursday morning at 9 a.m. and left again at 5 p.m. They will return Friday morning.

The trial has captivated the region not just for its uniqueness — there has not been a city leader accused of public corruption who faced a federal jury in recent memory, if ever — but also because the case is so polarizing.

Prosecutors described Sittenfeld as a public official whose “loyalty extends only as far as to who paid him the last check,” and his PAC as a “repository for bribes.”

But Sittenfeld's attorney, Charlie M. Rittgers, said his client, “consistently supported what’s good for the city, the public and his constituents.”

The key question for jurors is what was Sittenfeld's intent when he took donations from FBI agents who he knew as out-of-town developers and investors with the aliases of Rob Miller, Brian Bennett and Vinny in 2018 and 2019?

PG on the stand

In the first closing statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer led jurors through the elements of each charge that Sittenfeld faces: two counts of bribery, two counts of honest services wire fraud and two counts of attempted extortion. If convicted of all charges, he likely faces five to six years in prison.

“The bribe offers were clear,” Singer said.

But prosecutors do not need to prove an express quid pro quo to win a conviction. They must only prove that Sittenfeld had an explicit agreement, or a clear understanding, between himself and the undercover FBI agents who wanted their project at 435 Elm St. to clear hurdles at City Hall.

Singer repeatedly focused on an October 2018 recorded call between Sittenfeld and Chinedum Ndukwe, who was cooperating with the FBI. Sittenfeld, who wanted to run for mayor, asked for campaign donations in the form of “rounding up LLCs” from Ndukwe, a former Cincinnati Bengal turned real estate developer.

Sittenfeld can be heard saying, “You don’t want me to be like, hey Chin, love you but can’t.”

“So, what’s the context of this call … use your common sense,” Singer said. “This is a corrupt solicitation.”

This call is what convinced Ndukwe to cooperate with the government, as he testified that he was tired of being constantly solicited for campaign donations in a corrupt way, prosecutors said. The FBI was also investigating Ndukwe for alleged campaign finance violations, identity theft and bank structuring, according to his proffer agreement with the FBI.

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.

Sittenfeld knew he was going to be offered a bribe from out-of-town developers when Ndukwe called him in early November 2018 to say his investors wanted to give him $20,000 in campaign donations but needed “a yes vote” on their project, Singer said.

In recordings, Sittenfeld can be heard saying, “Nothing can be a quid pro quo,” but then also saying, “what I can say is that I’m super pro development … in seven years I’ve voted in favor of every single development deal that’s ever been put in front of me.”

To Singer, this conversation was, “about as an express quid pro quo as you can hear … alarm bells should have been going off in his head … he gets offered a bribe and his response is ‘I’m super pro-development.’”

Five days later, on Nov. 7, 2018, Sittenfeld had lunch at Nada with Ndukwe and the two developers who are undercover FBI agents and eventually accepts $40,000 in donations over the course of a year.

But Rittgers, who is Sittenfeld’s attorney, attacked the government for bringing partial recordings to trial and leaving out the context of what really happened. He criticized witnesses who had signed proffer agreements, an FBI agent for receiving a censure letter, and a government that he implied wasn’t concerned about the future of a blighted downtown building.

“P.G. consistently supported what’s good for the city, the public and his constituents,” Rittgers said.

Rittgers cautioned jurors that they must have proof beyond a reasonable doubt before they label Sittenfeld a criminal and took his “liberty away.”

He gave a lengthy list of why Sittenfeld is not a corrupt person, including that he refused cash, money orders and cashier check donations from the FBI agents, only eventually accepting checks from LLCs because that complied with campaign finance rules. He also refused trips to Miami, Nashville and Las Vegas from the FBI agents and even invited them to a dinner party at his house with then U.S. Attorney Ben Glassman.

“This case has been with me for two years,” Rittgers said as he became visibly choked up in front of the jury. “Obviously I feel strongly about it, obviously I believe in this.”

But the last word in closing statements came from Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Gaffney Painter, who offered a searing rebuttal to Rittgers.

“We are not here to decide if Mr. Sittenfeld is a corrupt person … you do not decide a good or bad person,” she said, noting that the jury’s only job was to decide if the government had proven its case.

“If Mr. Sittenfeld had actually cared about what’s best for the city, he would have encouraged competition for 435 Elm … but he doesn’t want competition,” said Painter. “No competition — that’s not good for the city. That’s good for the developers who bought off the defendant.”

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