CINCINNATI — Former Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld will take the stand in his own defense today, during the corruption trial that resumed on Tuesday.
A judge suspended the trial last week due to a "COVID-related issue."
Sittenfeld’s attorney, Charlie Rittgers, planned to call five witnesses to testify last Thursday and it was unclear whether Sittenfeld would be one of them.
Jurors were never brought into the courtroom Thursday morning, but defense witnesses — including interim City Manager John Curp and former Councilman Chris Seelbach — were there to testify. Both the prosecution and defense teams, all media and spectators were present, so it's unclear whether the COVID-related issue is with a juror.
Some jurors could be seen leaving the building well after U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole suspended the trial at 9:30 a.m. after meeting privately with attorneys.
Masks are optional at the federal courthouse in Cincinnati. A few of the 12 jurors and three alternates wore masks while seated in the jury box, but most did not.
The courtroom gallery was filled to capacity most days with media, spectators and Sittenfeld supporters, and roughly one-quarter of them wore masks.
The jury box is situated far away from spectators, but it does not have a plexiglass barrier.
Prosecutors rested their case against Sittenfeld last Wednesday, and the judge refused to dismiss any of the six public corruption charges against him. This means jurors will determine the fate of Cincinnati’s once-rising political star sometime this week, or possibly the week after if the COVID delay is extended.
The prosecution’s last two witnesses delivered the most explosive testimony of the trial so far: well-known Democratic political strategist Jared Kamrass; and Laura Brunner, CEO of The Port Authority of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority.
Kamrass testified that Sittenfeld kept a list of every person who scheduled an appointment at his City Hall office, had an ongoing contract with the city or hoped to bid for city jobs, so that he could ask them for campaign donations. He knew them as “transactional donors,” Kamrass testified.
Kamrass was treasurer of Sittenfeld’s PAC, which is at the heart of this case, and he testified that his client "micromanaged" fundraising, and asked each day if the mail had brought in any new campaign donation checks.
Undercover FBI agents who were posing as out-of-state developers donated $40,000 to Sittenfeld's PAC in 2018 and 2019. Prosecutors say Sittenfeld accepted the money in exchange for help on a stalled downtown development project.
These agents, known by their flashy aliases of Rob Miller and Brian Bennett, caught the attention of many at City Hall, including Sittenfeld who “thought they were sleazy,” Kamrass testified.
Kamrass testified that Sittenfeld believed these 'developers' were probably FBI agents. But Sittenfeld still planned to ask them for more contributions in 2019 because he felt that he “didn’t do anything wrong and had properly recorded their donations.”
Then in February 2019, Sittenfeld sent an email to Kamrass with a New York Times article about how the FBI was targeting local public corruption as its top priority. Soon after Sittenfeld changed to Signal, an encrypted application that deletes messages automatically, because “there was concern about anyone other than us reading the content of our communications,” Kamrass said.
But Kamrass also testified about his own legal troubles. He began cooperating with the FBI in July 2020 because he admitted to stealing $15,000 in cash that undercover FBI agents had given him a few years prior to contribute to the PAC of another elected official, which earlier testimony revealed was then-Mayor John Cranley.
In exchange, the FBI agents, who were posing as developers, asked that the elected leader not stand in the way of their project, Kamrass testified.
“I never had a conversation with the elected official, I just kept the money for myself,” Kamrass said, about Cranley. “He knew nothing about it.”
Sittenfeld fired Kamrass after discovering a fake email that Kamrass had sent to him. Another unnamed elected leader also fired Kamrass in 2018 after he lied about arranging a tour for a campaign contributor, Kamrass testified.
Kamrass had a list of prominent Democratic clients including Nan Whaley, who is running for Ohio governor and City Councilman Greg Landsman who is running against Steve Chabot for Ohio's 1st congressional district.
He agreed to cooperate with the FBI in July 2020 and wore a wire on Sittenfeld, but his wire did not capture any illegal conduct, Kamrass testified.
Kamrass was the second cooperating witness that jurors heard from this week. Former Cincinnati Bengal turned developer Chinedum Ndukwe testified on Tuesday as the FBI’s key cooperating witness in its case against Sittenfeld.
Ndukwe agreed to cooperate after the FBI discovered that he allegedly gave straw donations to local candidates, and potentially violated money laundering, identity theft and structured banking laws, according to his testimony.
While Ndukwe’s project at Convention Place was real, two of his investors were undercover FBI agents. This gave him way to introduce them to city leaders and offer a believable cover for them to work at City Hall for 18 months rooting out potential corruption.
After receiving $40,000 in donations from the agents, prosecutors say Sittenfeld pressured Brunner to approve a development deal with Ndukwe.
“He wanted me to enter into an agreement with Mr. Ndukwe regardless of whether I thought it was a good idea or not,” Brunner said, describing the “too frequent,” “too long” and “too direct” phone calls she got from Sittenfeld about this project.
Ndukwe’s plan for this very complicated project was “never satisfactory or complete,” Brunner testified, noting that he lacked a qualified development team, financing, equity and had a constantly changing plan.
Yet Sittenfeld pushed her to give the deal to Ndukwe in a manner that was,“completely out of context with other conversations I have had with him.”
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On the defense side, Sittenfeld’s lawyers called their first witness on Wednesday: interim City Manager John Curp. But his testimony was interrupted during cross-examination when Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter asked him to look at an email between himself and Ndukwe.
Curp had been Ndukwe’s attorney in his dealings with Brunner and also a personal attorney and friend of Sittenfeld’s. Curp refused to discuss the email until he spoke with Ndukwe, out of concern for attorney-client privilege.
The defense had asked to bring in 13 character witnesses to testify about how Sittenfeld had helped them, but the judge refused, saying attorneys could only call witnesses who had experienced conduct similar to the alleged crimes.
“It all sounds laudable,” the judge said, referring to witnesses who wanted to testify about how Sittenfeld helped fix youth basketball courts and hold outdoor church services during the pandemic. But the judge said it is unrelated to this case and could, “more be seen as a plea for sympathy.”
Cole will only allow testimony from two witness related to a low-income affordable housing deal and the expansion of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, with former president and CEO Michael Fisher on the witness list.
Prosecutors are also expected to call rebuttal witnesses.