P.G. Sittenfeld trial may expose how fundraising, developer deals at City Hall really got done

Bribery or legal campaign fundraising?
Posted at 8:59 AM, Jun 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-20 20:03:10-04

CINCINNATI — Voters elected 27-year-old P.G. Sittenfeld as the youngest councilman in Cincinnati history in 2011, launching him into the city’s political orbit and the national spotlight.

A tireless campaigner known for his honk-and-waves on street corners, Sittenfeld won re-election to City Council twice as the top vote getter. He inspired millennial voters and by his own account was a prodigious fundraiser, so he became the unquestionable favorite to be Cincinnati’s next mayor.

But all of that changed on the morning of November 19, 2020 when FBI agents arrested Sittenfeld at his East Walnut Hills home and charged him with six crimes related to public corruption.

His trial begins Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati.

“That’s one thing that every elected official in America has in common: Nobody wants to be in P.G. Sittenfeld’s seat right now,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven, who has closely followed the case.

But the trial isn’t just about Sittenfeld, and whether he traded “official acts” to help a downtown project in exchange for $40,000 in donations to his political action fund, or PAC. Experts say the trial is really about the murky, sometimes seedy side of campaign fundraising.

“This is not a case strictly about him and a couple of developer deals, this is a case about the way American politics works,” Niven said. “If you win this case, you will literally take thousands of officeholders and you will shake them by the lapels and tell them you can’t simply sit around in this cesspool of money, you have to find another way.”

Over the next two to three weeks, the trial will likely expose how business at City Hall really got done during one of the most explosive periods of development in recent memory. Big deals cemented during this time include the FC Cincinnati stadium deal, and new development at The Banks.

The FBI secretly descended on City Hall in 2018 and 2019 with an approved wiretap. Two to three undercover agents who posed as out-of-town developers and investors, and at least four cooperating witnesses.

The result: the FBI arrested three City Council members on separate charges of public corruption in 2020. With one-third of the city’s legislative body under criminal indictment, the words of Chris Hoffman, then special agent in charge of the FBI’s Cincinnati office, hung over City Hall like a cloud: “they’re drinking from the same cup … this culture of corruption.”

Former Councilmember Tamaya Dennard, a Democrat, pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud and was released from prison last month. Former Councilman Jeff Pastor, a Republican, is awaiting trial in a separate public corruption case. Sittenfeld, a Democrat, is the first council member to face a jury.

A ‘real cloud’ over City Hall

The case has already had a chilling effect at City Hall.

“When we were appointed, we walked into one of the worst circumstances I think there has ever been at City Hall in Cincinnati. We had one third of the councilmembers who had been arrested … there was a real cloud over the body,” said Steve Goodin, a Republican who was appointed to Pastor’s seat after his arrest in November 2020.

Sittenfeld and Pastor took voluntary suspensions, meaning both collected full salaries and benefits worth more than $152,000 until their terms ended in January of 2022. Liz Keating was appointed to fill Sittenfeld’s seat on council, and voters elected her to keep that position last November. Voters did not elect Goodin.

“The arrests focused a lot of attention on this whole issue of money and politics,” Goodin said. “The Sittenfeld situation occurred during a period of tremendous growth for the city and Over-the-Rhine and downtown of people trying to do deals to the left and the right. We had council members who really didn’t have any professional experience in economic development.”

Goodin introduced a new law aimed at preventing pay-to-play schemes, which city council passed last October. It bans council members and the mayor from taking campaign donations from people who have a project that is awaiting a vote - such as those seeking loans, tax incentives, the sale of city property or zoning changes. Under the new law, city administratorspublish a list of developers and financially interested parties who have current projects pending.

In the aftermath of the corruption scandal, city council also voted to spend $150,000 in June 2021 to audit development deals for any inappropriate activity. That forensic audit, which spans 2018 to 2020, is not yet completed.

“Some of this stuff may be perfectly innocent but when someone is down there seeking TIF dollars for a project, or a zoning variance that could be worth in practical terms millions and millions of dollars … if folks are giving money to council members in the days leading up to a vote, even if the council member never sat down with them, even if there was no formal quid pro quo, it just looks terrible,” Goodin said.

But like it or not, candidates must raise money to get elected in the American privately financed campaign system. Often the biggest checks come from people who have the most at stake. There is nothing illegal about accepting campaign donations from developers – even those who have big deals pending a vote by city council.

“The money is coming from people who care what decisions are made by council because they’re literally going to profit by that. And there’s no good side to that,” Niven said. “That is not an indictment of Sittenfeld, that is just politics. The money flows from places where the money ultimately goes. And that’s the nature of the game.”

Sittenfeld believes the six criminal charges he now faces are the result of a political prosecution, and that he was selectively targeted. He is adamant that he did nothing illegal and simply engaged in the very same fundraising techniques that were common at city hall. He also insists there was never any quid pro quo, and that as a pro-development candidate, he would have supported the Convention Place project with or without donations from undercover FBI agents.

“That is why the Supreme Court acknowledged that the acceptance by an elected official of a campaign contribution does not in itself, violate the law even if the donor has business pending before the official. A general expectation of some future favorable action is not enough to make the payment criminal,” according to a trial brief by Sittenfeld’s attorneys.

Ken Katkin, a Northern Kentucky University law professor and an acquaintance of Sittenfeld, said appellate courts have made very narrow and strict interpretations of campaign finance laws that require a fairly explicit quid pro quo exchange to justify a bribery or extortion conviction.

“I do not believe that anything that has been alleged in the indictment (against Sittenfeld) actually constitutes a crime,” Katkin said.

But prosecutors say Sittenfeld committed bribery and his defense is not legitimate.

“It is no defense that an official would have taken certain actions regardless of any alleged bribe … the court recognized this in denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss: ‘even if it is true that Sittenfeld would have supported Project 1 anyway, that is legally irrelevant,’” according to the government’s trial brief.

It could be a fine line for jurors to navigate, and only they will be able to decide if what Sittenfeld did is legal fundraising, or bribery.

“It is legal to do things. It is legal to take money. It is not legal to do things for money,” Niven said. “The burden on the prosecutors is to draw that straight line between the actions and the money. And it’s a difficult one to draw.”

Even U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole acknowledged the importance of the key question of intent.

"A central issue at that trial will be Sittenfeld’s state of mind—specifically, in soliciting and accepting certain campaign contributions, did he intend to enter a quid pro quo agreement with his donors to perform official acts beneficial to them," Cole wrote in a June 17 order.

‘Public Official A’

There is already widespread interest across the city about the identity of some likely witnesses at trial – who are identified in court filings not by name, but only by initials.

“This case has made a lot of people very, very nervous,” Goodin said.

Recent court filings also reveal the possible origins of the case against Sittenfeld.

“One of Mr. Sittenfeld’s campaign finance consultants at one point lied to Mr. Sittenfeld about having followed up with (undercover agent 1) to confirm proper LLC principal attribution information. As soon as Mr. Sittenfeld discovered this lie, he immediately fired the individual for dishonesty – an episode the individual has admitted to the FBI. Unbeknownst to Mr. Sitteneld, the same individual committed separate crimes – having nothing to do with Mr. Sittenfeld – while working for Public Official A, causing the individual to ultimately become a government cooperator,” according to a recent Sittenfeld court filing.

Several court filings have identified Public Official A as former Mayor John Cranley, without explicitly naming him.Under the charter of the city of Cincinnati, Public Official A could veto a vote of the council, but the council could then override Public Official A’s veto with six out of nine votes,” according to Sittenfeld’s trial brief, which described the mayoral veto power.

READ MORE | Here's who will be allowed to testify at Sittenfeld trial

It is no secret the FBI cast a wide net in their public corruption probe in Cincinnati. How much of this surrounding investigation is revealed at trial will depend largely on the restraints set by the judge.

“At the same time agents were investigating this case, the government was investigating other public officials and individuals for corruption. Some of these investigations have led to federal charges while others have not,” according to prosecutors’ trial brief.

Prosecutors don’t intend to introduce specifics related to other corruption investigations, saying it could confuse the jury and lead to a long trial.

“Evidence relating to these investigations – including recordings or the identity of other potential subjects or targets of investigations are not relevant to the defendant’s intent in this case. Rather this evidence will unnecessarily extend the length of the trial and confuse the issues for the jury,” according to prosecutors’ trial brief.

But the jury, and the public, may get to hear about the wider corruption probes at City Hall, especially if Sittenfeld’s legal team focuses on a selective prosecution defense.

“If the defendant introduces evidence relating to these investigations, this again ‘opens the door,’ for the government to introduce clarifying evidence justifying those investigations, if necessary,” according to prosecutors’ trial brief.

Many current and former City Hall staffers, political watchers and lawyers have already told WCPO they plan to attend the trial. Since it takes place in federal court, where cameras are not allowed, the only way the public can hear testimony is to go to the courtroom.

“This is the ultimate Cincinnati soap opera that’s going to take place. And this is the reality of politics in every American city,” Niven said.

WCPO's Paula Christian will be at the trial every day until it concludes. You can expect a round-up of each day's testimony on, our WCPO news app and on-air beginning at 5 p.m.

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