Jury has case in P.G. Sittenfeld corruption trial

Sittenfeld: 'I would never under any circumstance sell my vote ... for a campaign donation'
PG on the stand
Posted at 4:14 PM, Jul 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-06 16:52:11-04

CINCINNATI — P.G. Sittenfeld's fate is now in the hands of the jurors after both sides rested their case and U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole read jury instructions.

In their closing argument, prosecutors asked jurors to consider if Sittenfeld agreed to accept money knowing it was in exchange for officials' actions. The defense asked jurors to consider whether Sittenfeld had corrupt intent on all six counts related to public corruption.

The prosecution said "time and again Mr. Sittenfeld sided with the bribe payers" instead of the public. The prosecutors are trying to convict Sittenfeld on his own words, replaying secret recordings repeatedly throughout this trial.

“His loyalty extends only as far as to who paid him the last check," prosecutors said.

Sittenfeld's attorney accused the prosecutors of playing only snippets of the recordings. If Sittenfeld was corrupt, the defense asked, wouldn't he have accepted money from FBI agents and not have fired a consultant for dishonesty?

The final jury is three men and nine women. Jury deliberations could continue into Thursday.

Sittenfeld took the witness stand on Tuesday, admitting during four hours of testimony that he'll "probably never be in politics again" despite maintaining his innocence in a public corruption trial that has captivated the region for two weeks.

“It’s weird to have both lived this, and then relived it,” Sittenfeld testified about how it felt to listen to his own voice on secret recordings with undercover FBI agents in 2018 and 2019, “and now reliving it again in the courtroom."

A practiced political leader and confident speaker, Sittenfeld appeared at ease on the witness stand. He explained his reasons for taking $40,000 in campaign donations from FBI agents who were posing as developers. He described the project at the heart of the case, the blighted Convention Place Mall downtown, as a “no brainer, slam dunk for the city” that he would have supported regardless of the donations.

“It would never have occurred to me to not roll up my sleeves and try to help a project like 435 Elm,” Sittenfeld testified.

P.G. Sittenfeld Tuesday July 5 trial

He explained that when he said, “I can deliver the votes,” on secret recordings, he meant that, “it was just me expressing my confidence,” that he could get his colleagues at City Hall to support the project.

He also testified about his relationship with former Cincinnati Bengal turned real estate developer Chinedum Ndukwe, who agreed to cooperate with FBI agents after they began investigating him for alleged campaign violations, identity theft, money laundering and structured banking.

Ndukwe has been a key figure in this trial because he introduced the FBI agents to Sittenfeld, wore a wire on his former friend, and pretended that the agents were out-of-town investors in his Convention Place project.

“I trusted him as a person, I trusted him as a friend … he took his credibility and his trust and he conferred it on them,” Sittenfeld testified, about Ndukwe.

Laura Brunner, CEO of the Port Authority of Greater Cincinnati, testified last week that Sittenfeld pressured her to give a development deal to Ndukwe on the Convention Place project despite him lacking basics such as funding or an established developer.

But Sittenfeld said there was a disconnect between what he was being told about the project, and what Brunner knew.

“To me, all of the pieces were in place," Sittenfeld testified. "I did not know this was a fiction from the FBI."

Throughout his decade-long career at City Hall, Sittenfeld said he often voted against big donors and frequently championed projects that were not tied to any donations, such as increasing affordable housing and expanding bus service.

“I never did … under any circumstances sell my vote or trade my vote for a campaign donation,” Sittenfeld testified.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer led Sittenfeld through an intense two hours of cross-examination. He asked him to read transcripts of what he had said to the FBI on multiple secret recordings and explain himself.

“This is the second time in five days that you were offered a very express $20,000 to get a deal done,” why did you still meet with the agents, Singer asked.

P.G. Sittenfeld Tuesday July 5 trial

“That’s not what I understood,” Sittenfeld said. “I did not understand him to be offering money for votes.

Sittenfeld testified that he thought he had cleared up that he would not take a quid pro quo while on an earlier call with Ndukwe, but still met with the FBI who were promising campaign donations because he was generally pro-development. His explanation for this taped exchange was that he was making a bad joke:

“Where do you guys find these LLCs? Do I not want to know?” Sittenfeld asked in one recorded call with undercover FBI agents who supplied him multiple checks from LLCs to his PAC.

“Yeah, you probably don’t,” an undercover agent responded.

“As long as it passes muster and like a person with a name,” Sittenfeld said.

Sittenfeld’s explanation for this taped exchange was also that he was making a bad joke about an undercover agent known as “Vinny,” who supposedly had past ties to organized crime:

“Is he like a mafia-type,” Sittenfeld asked FBI agents posing as developers, who supposedly worked for Vinny.

“I’m gonna say yes,” an undercover agent responded.

“By the way, I don’t really care,” Sittenfeld responded.

Sittenfeld’s explanation as to why he accepted a bottle of 18-year-old Macallan scotch and a box of cigars worth $482 from undercover agents but failed to report it as a gift on campaign filings:

“I never smoked a cigar in my life, and I don’t drink Scotch,” so he said he didn’t know the gifts were worth more than $70 or $75, which is the legal limit for not disclosing them.

“They were deceptively using a celebration of fatherhood and being a dad.

“I thought this was a moment of human kindness.”

Sittenfeld’s explanation for why he suggested FBI agents, who wanted to keep their names secret, donate to his PAC instead of his campaign fund, “I do have a PAC that no one, no one’s like snooping around:”

His PAC was shielded from the “weird quirkiness of journalists,” who like to review who makes campaign donations to political leaders.

Sittenfeld was the fourth and last defense witness. Jurors also heard from interim Cincinnati City Manager John Curp, who was formerly an attorney for Sittenfeld and Ndukwe; former assistant city solicitor Luke Blocher; and former City Councilman Chris Seelbach, who is a good friend of Sittenfeld’s.

“We all wish money was less important in campaigning,” Seelbach testified. “How you run for office in our country today is to raise a lot of money and to spend it well.”

Seelbach testified that much of what Sittenfeld is accused of doing — such as asking developers for donations and separately telling someone you can “get the votes” to pass a deal at City Hall, is legal and common.

“You can absolutely ask for donations from people with business before the city. It is perfectly legal,” testified Seelbach.