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, but could face two to three years in prison.
Sittenfeld put his head down as the verdict was read.
"We're obviously very disappointed, that's about all I can say right now," said Charlie Rittgers, Sittenfeld's attorney, as he left the courthouse. "PG's, well he's crushed. He's crushed."
Rittgers declined to comment about future moves the team might make on Sittenfeld's behalf or whether they planned to file an appeal.
"We truly appreciate the jurors' time and serious consideration of this matter," said Kenneth L. Parker, U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of Ohio in a tweet. "Democracy requires politicians to uphold their oath with the highest standards of integrity and respect. In this case, we worked alongside the FBI to hold Mr. Sittenfeld accountable for abusing his oath and, ultimately, the trust that the citizens of Cincinnati placed in him."
When verdict was read, first 2 counts were not guilty (wire fraud) Sittenfeld was visibly relieved, and audible sighs of relief from supporters. Then count 3 (bribery) was guilty. And room fell silent. Supporters were stunned. @WCPO @EvanMillward
— Paula Christian (@PaulaChristian_) July 8, 2022
The jury determined that Sittenfeld was guilty of attempted extortion and bribery chargesconnected to interactions he had with former Cincinnati Bengal turned real estate developer Chinedum Ndukwe.
Ndukwe introduced Sittenfeld to the two undercover FBI agents who were posing as investors who wanted to redevelop the blighted Convention Place Mall downtown. He also recorded several phone calls with Sittenfeld, some of which Rittgers played for jurors on Wednesday.
The two men had been friends for eight years, Rittgers said. But that changed when the FBI told Ndukwe in January 2018 that he was under investigation for several crimes including money laundering.
Prosecutors repeatedly focused on an October 2018 recorded call between Sittenfeld and Chinedum Ndukwe that may have been what influenced the jury's decision to find Sittenfeld guilty on charges associated with Ndukwe. During the conversation, 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 could be heard saying, “You don’t want me to be like, hey Chin, love you but can’t.”
Steve Goodin, former prosecutor and Cincinnati council member, said he believes Sittenfeld's conviction could be hard to overturn on appeal.
"I will say if I'm reading the verdict correctly, the appeal might be a little tougher than it seems," said Goodin. "This was a very thoughtful verdict. There were certainly parts of this investigation this jury responded to, and evidential parts they didn't and, in as much, this is a finding of credibility, about who was telling the truth with those Ndukwe tapes. That's going to be a tougher thing to appeal."
The jury found Sittenfeld not guilty on one charge of bribery and attempted extortion connected to interactions with "Vinny," a retired FBI agent who posed as a wealthy investor boss who grew up in New Jersey, lived in Providence and liked to spend time on his yacht in Miami. Vinny told Sittenfeld he also wanted to make a major investment in the Convention Place Mall. Vinny testified during the trial under his alias.
Vinny met Sittenfeld inside a Columbus Hilton hotel room on March 24, 2019, where the two discussed bringing sports betting to Cincinnati. Vinny wanted to build a boutique hotel, with a restaurant, sports betting, luxury apartments and retail space in the blighted Convention Place at 435 Elm Street downtown.
In a video recording shown to jurors, while Sittenfeld ate chicken wings seated on a hotel couch, Vinny suggested that he wanted sports betting to be controlled in Cincinnati to ensure that he got the best share of the revenue at his hotel.
Once a rising star in Cincinnati's political scene, Sittenfeld was the youngest council member in city history when voters elected him at age 27 in 2011. He won re-election twice as the top vote-getter and in July 2020 announced his campaign for mayor.
Then, on Nov. 19, 2020, FBI agents arrested Sittenfeld at his East Walnut Hills home and charged him with six public corruption charges. Prosecutors accused Sittenfeld of accepting $40,000 in donations to a political action committee (PAC) from undercover FBI agents posing as developers in exchange for his support and official acts to help the development of Convention Place Mall.
Sittenfeld turned down a plea deal in this case that could have exposed him to as much as 2 years in prison or as little as probation. Now he likely faces 2/3 years in prison and life as a convicted felon. @EvanMillward @WCPO
— Paula Christian (@PaulaChristian_) July 8, 2022
Sittenfeld was charged with two counts of honest services wire fraud, two counts of bribery and two counts of attempted extortion. Throughout the trial, Sittenfeld has maintained his innocence. He insisted there was never any quid pro quo and that he would have supported the Convention Place Mall project regardless of donations.
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This high-profile case has captivated the region, with the courtroom filled to capacity on most days with Sittenfeld's supporters and family, law clerks and lawyers, media and even a federal judge came to watch Sittenfeld on the witness stand. Also, U.S. attorney Ken Parker has been in the courtroom several times to observe.
The prosecutors — Matthew Singer, Emily Glatfelter and Megan Gaffney Painter — are also leading the public corruption case against former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and others, which is scheduled for trial in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati. That case will take place in the very same courtroom on Jan. 23, 2023 before U.S. District Judge Tim Black.
Jurors heard from Sittenfeld, undercover agents, Ndukwe, interim city manager John Curp, attorney for Sittenfeld and Ndukwe, former assistant city solicitor Luke Blocher and former councilman Chris Seelbach.
Prosecutors played secret recordings to the jury, including conversations where Sittenfeld told agents, "I can deliver the votes." On the witness stand, Sittenfeld explained many of his quotes, including that conversation, saying "it was just me expressing my confidence" that he could get his colleagues at City Hall to support the project. Sittenfeld's attorneys accused prosecutors of only playing snippets of the recordings.
During his testimony, Sittenfeld admitted he'll "probably never be in politics again" — win or lose.