CINCINNATI — Few people noticed on Jan. 17, 2019 when Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Pastor’s name appeared in the meeting minutes of the Oakley Community Council. His chief of staff sent an email, saying an Oakley developer was “very interested in the Kennedy Connector” road project.
Twelve days later, another email at City Hall identified Morelia Group CEO Christopher Hildebrant as one of three people interested in buying city-owned land no longer needed for the Kennedy Connector project.
Between those two emails, something else happened, according to last November’s bribery indictment against Pastor.
“Pastor had a call with Cooperating Witness 2 during which Pastor stated that he ‘strongly suggested’ to city officials to sell land to Cooperating Witness 2 to further Project 2,” the indictment states.
Four sources told the WCPO I-Team that Hildebrant is Cooperating Witness 2 and Project 2 refers to the Kennedy Connector land that Hildebrant tried to purchase from the city.
For six months the public has not known the identity of the key witness in Pastor’s case, or the unnamed land deal in his indictment.
Attorneys say a court order bans them from revealing the identity of Cooperating Witness 2. But law enforcement readily revealed the name of the other cooperating witness in a November press conference to announce Pastor’s indictment. They praised the “moral courage” of that witness: former Cincinnati Bengal turned developer Chinedum Ndukwe.
RELATED: Developer, ex-Bengal weaves tangled web at City Hall
In this story, the I-Team examines the role that sources say Hildebrant had in the biggest corruption probe in Cincinnati history. Last year the FBI charged three sitting Cincinnati City Council members with bribery and described a “culture of corruption” at City Hall.
The first arrest came last February, when the FBI arrested former Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard on bribery charges. A third cooperating witness, attorney Tom Gabelman, who represents Hamilton County on riverfront-development matters, shared information with prosecutors leading to Dennard’s arrest and conviction.
Dennard is scheduled to report to prison on June 1 to serve her 18-month sentence.
In addition to Pastor and Dennard, mayoral front-runner P.G. Sittenfeld was accused of promising favorable action on an Ndukwe project in exchange for campaign contributions, an allegation he denies.
No trial date has been set in Pastor or Sittenfeld’s case. But when those cases arrive in a federal courtroom for judgment, the identity and credibility of the cooperating witnesses who wore the wires and secretly recorded conversations for the FBI could become critical.
“I find information regarding Mr. Hildebrant to be extremely relevant, extremely, to my representation of Mr. Pastor,” Pastor’s attorney Ben Dusing said. “When the government builds major cases around certain individuals, their credibility and their motives are obviously highly relevant. Everybody’s got a motive.”
Hildebrant’s attorney, Chad Ziepfel, declined an interview for his story.
In a statement to WCPOhe said, in part, “Mr. Hildebrant will not dignify the allegations by such ‘unnamed sources’ with any response.”
Dusing knows the identity of the secret witness but said a court order bans him from publicly disclosing it.
“It would seem the dots have been connected, but I have to play by the rules here,” Dusing said.
WCPO does not ordinarily use anonymous sources, but our policy allows for it when such sources are the only way to obtain information vital to the public good. In addition to the information provided by these sources, the I-team evaluated publicly available meeting minutes, court documents and records through the Ohio Public Records Act that show Hildebrant sought to purchase city land during the same timeframe as the actions laid out in the indictment.
The I-Team has been looking into Hildebrant’s background for several months, after a credible source identified him as the unnamed cooperating witness in the FBI’s City Hall probe.
RELATED: Dueling lawsuits allege corruption in Sycamore
The I-Team renewed its inquiries in April, when the Morelia Group, of which Hildebrant is CEO, filed a lawsuit accusing Sycamore Township Trustee Tom Weidman of soliciting bribes a decade ago.
This came two months after Weidman filed his own lawsuit against Hildebrant for defamation. Weidman’s attorney, Todd McMurtry, said he will seek information “soon” about Hildebrant’s potential history with the FBI as part of the discovery process in his Warren County defamation case.
“We need to investigate his history as a – potential history, don’t know if it it’s true or not – as an FBI informant,” McMurtry said. “We have some suspicions about what’s happened and if we can prove those, we think it will be very helpful to both getting the frivolous lawsuit dismissed and pursuing our own claims.”
The Ohio Auditor’s office’s Special Investigations Unit looked into bribery allegations against Weidman in 2020 but closed its case without filing any charges.
“I’m going to sue this guy into the frickin’ stone age,” Weidman said in an interview with state investigators last November. “This is bullshit, all bullshit.”
The I-Team obtained the Nov. 18, 2020, audio recording of Weidman’s conversation with fraud investigators from the auditor’s Cincinnati regional office.
Much of the interview dealt with the township’s purchase of a Taco Bell location at 7781 Montgomery Road in 2011. The property plays heavily into the dueling lawsuits that Hildebrant and Weidman filed against each other.
Morelia Group’s lawsuit alleges Weidman thwarted its attempt to purchase the Taco Bell site and other adjacent parcels in 2019 because Hildebrant failed to pay bribes to Weidman a decade ago.
Weidman told state investigators that Hildebrant received a $100,000 consulting fee from a property owner and tried to get more by falsely claiming trustees wanted $20,000 in cash for a trip to New York.
According to state investigative reports, Hildebrant disclosed the alleged bribes to Sycamore Township Trustee Tom James in January 2020 and then showed emails about the deals to Trustee Jim LaBarbara and Administrator Ray Warrick. That prompted James to contact the Ohio Auditor’s office, which launched its investigation last February and issued subpoenas for emails containing details of the alleged bribes.
By the time Weidman was interviewed, Hildebrant’s attorney, Chad Ziepfel, had already informed investigators that one email “was not written by Mr. Weidman,” records show.
“Mr. Hildebrandt drafted this email and sent it to himself,” Ziepfel told investigators on June 25, 2020.
Ziepfel provided a more detailed explanation in an email response to I-Team questions last month. The email said Hildebrant “found himself in the unenviable position of being on the receiving end of bribe requests” from Weidman and a property owner. Ziepfel also told the I-Team that Hildebrant “composed the email … to provide some semblance of proof of Mr. Weidman’s bribe requests.”
But state investigators never got to hear that explanation from Hildebrant. After requesting immunity for his client, Ziepfel advised Hildebrant not to answer questions when agents interviewed him on Aug 5, 2020.
Hildebrant asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 21 times during the interview.
But Weidman had a lot more to say in his 81-minute interview with the auditor’s office.
“That’s not even my email address,” Weidman said. “This is the most bogus thing I’ve ever seen.”
Weidman later forwarded to state investigators more than 100 emails in support of his version of events and offered to take a polygraph test while challenging Hildebrant to do the same.
“I’m telling you, you put me on a polygraph machine. I’ve never ever taken a penny from anybody ever,” he said. “You put him on the same polygraph machine. Let’s see what happens.”
The Ohio Auditor investigated allegations that stretch back to 2011. The Pastor indictment covers a much shorter time frame from September 2018 to the following Spring.
“Cooperating Witness 2 had a series of meetings and telephone calls to discuss Pastor’s progress getting Project 2 passed … along with additional requests for compensation to Pastor,” the indictment states. In their last meeting, Mar. 4, 2019, “Pastor wanted $7,500 now and $7,500 later, plus a percentage of the overall deal.”
Public records show Hildebrant worked on two Oakley projects within a few blocks of each other in 2018 and 2019, during the time frame covered by the Pastor indictment.
The first, Oakley Connection, involved the construction of a daycare center and retail complex on land purchased by Morelia Group affiliates from Crossroads Community Church. The second, Crossings of Oakley, is a yet-to-be built retail complex at the corner of Kennedy Avenue and Madison Road.
At Oakley Connection, Cincinnati City Council gave Hildebrand a tax abatement worth $298,194 in June 2018, in exchange for his $2.45 million investment in an All About Kids daycare center that created 20 permanent jobs.
Council also enabled some of the financing for the project by endorsing Morelia Group’s loan application to the Property Assessed Clean Energy program for $1.6 million in energy-efficiency improvements in a 16,400-square-foot retail building adjacent to the daycare center.
City Council voted to authorize that PACE loan to the Morelia Group in December 2018 – two months after Pastor’s first meeting with Cooperating Witness 2.
The deal at the heart of the indictment, Project 2, which sources identified as the Kennedy Connector, never came to City Council for a vote. In fact, Pastor was one of seven council members who voted to sell the land that Hildebrant wanted to another party – Hubbard Radio – on April 17, 2019.
Pastor’s indictment first mentions Project 2 in connection with a $15,000 bribe that an undercover agent allegedly offered him on Sept. 27, 2018. The indictment says Pastor and his co-defendant, Tyran Marshall, had 12 meetings or phone calls with Cooperating Witness 2 between Oct. 9, 2018 and Mar. 4, 2019.
During one of those meetings on Jan. 15, 2019, Pastor asked for $115,000 in annual pay for himself and $85,000 for Marshall, according to the indictment.
“Pastor stated there is ‘a lot of money to be made on’ Project 2,” the indictment states. “Pastor further stated ... the $200,000 is ‘the median income to do the things he’s doing.’”
Two days after that meeting, the Oakley Community Council noted an email from Pastor’s chief of staff in its meeting minutes:
“Oakley developer ‘is very interested in the Kennedy Connector Project and has been engaging with the OCC.’ Colleen to confirm OCC has not been engaged in what the plans for the Kennedy Connector are.”
The indictment makes no mention of Cooperating Witness 2 after March 4, 2019. City records show that’s when Hildebrant’s quest to purchase Kennedy Connector land faltered.
On March 13, Oakley Community Council President Colleen Reynolds sent an email to city officials. “We would ask the city to refrain from selling their portion of the property to Morelia Group – or to any developer for that matter – until significant & meaningful community engagement has taken place,” she wrote.
On April 15, Cincinnati Development Officer Kathleen Colley sent an email explaining that the land Hildebrant wanted was needed for a headquarters expansion by Hubbard Radio.
“We told (Hildebrant) that if Hubbard determined they did not need the 0.8097 acres, and he could obtain support from the Oakley Community Council for the zone change that would be needed, we would work with him to sell him this property,” Colley wrote to her boss, Development Director Philip Denning. “The OCC board indicated that they would need additional information about the project (site plans, renderings, etc.) and asked him to come back to a later meeting when he could share this information. He has not yet shared this info or returned to OCC.”
Two days after Colley’s email, Pastor voted with six other members of council to sell Hubbard “three remnant parcels created by the Kennedy Connector Roadway Project,” including the piece sought by Hildebrant.
Two years later, Hildebrant is still pursuing a retail project at the Crossings of Oakley. On Feb. 3, 2021, City Council unanimously approved a zone change for Morelia Group to accommodate a Swenson’s restaurant at the corner of Kennedy and Madison.
In 2017, a Minnesota bank filed a lawsuit in Texas against Hildebrant and Central USA Wireless LLC. The lawsuit alleges fraud, breach of contract and the loss of nearly $190,000 worth of leased heavy machinery and equipment.
Central, which was controlled by Hildebrant family trusts, leased equipment from the bank as part of its contract with AT&T to provide drilling services in Texas, according to the lawsuit.
MinnWest Bank claimed that Hildebrant overinflated his assets by millions and provided a fraudulent financial statement to avoid liability for equipment leases.
But Hildebrant denied those allegations in his court filings and said the bank did nothing to reclaim the equipment.
A judge dismissed the case in August 2019, after a settlement agreement was reached, according to court filings.
Years earlier, in 2006, media outlets in Cincinnati reported on a motion for leniency that Hildebrant's father, Charles Hildebrant, wrote from the Big Sandy federal prison.
Charles Hildebrant was the former owner of the Florence Freedom baseball team who pleaded guilty to bank fraud in 2005. But he asked for leniency a year later, claiming that his son helped the FBI convict Pete Rose Jr. on a conspiracy charge related to the distribution of a steroid alternative drug.
“Petitioner’s son also gave the agents information and even wore a wire on several occasions in the attempt to catch Mr. Pete Rose and Mr. Pete Rose Jr. in their gambling and drug trafficking case,” Charles Hildebrant wrote.
Charles Hildebrant had two sons, and he didn’t identify the son who helped him inform on the Roses. But he noted in his leniency motion that his wife was general manager of the team and his son, one of its players. The 2004 Florence Freedom roster lists Christopher “Flip” Hildebrant as a player on the team, which Pete Rose Jr. managed for one day.
Ziepfel said “it is simply untrue” to say his client “assisted law enforcement in an investigation of Pete Rose and Pete Rose Jr. in 2005.” He notes the indictment against Pete Rose Jr. alleges drug sales that took place in 2001 and 2002.
“This clearly calls into question the accuracy of Charles’ statements,” he said.
But DEA agents did not confront Rose Jr. until June of 2005, after agents seized a drug shipment from a storage unit in Tennessee that eventually led them to Rose Jr., according to a DEA press release.
“Christopher Hildebrant has a younger brother, who was acquainted with Mr. Rose, Jr. We, of course, do not know, but if there is any truth at all to the filing, it could be Mr. Hildebrant’s brother to whom Charles might be referring."
Meanwhile Dusing said the credibility of all cooperating witnesses are important to Pastor’s case.
“Why is it important? It goes directly to the integrity of these prosecutions,” Dusing said.
Pastor awaits trial on 10 charges including honest services wire fraud, attempted extortion by a government official and money laundering, and faces several years in prison if convicted. Marshall, who faces four counts, including bribery and attempted extortion, is also awaiting trial.
Also awaiting trial is suspended Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who was arrested a week after Pastor in a pay-for-play case that does not rely on Hildebrant as a cooperating witness.
Attorneys for Marshall and Sittenfeld declined to comment on this story.
Hildebrant’s attorney, Chad Ziepfel, offered an opposing point of view.
“I would simply remind WCPO that reporting such allegations while the underlying criminal case is still pending, based wholly on unverified and ‘unnamed sources,’ is possibly reckless, or even malicious, and may subject WCPO to various legal claims, including defamation of a man who is not a public figure,” Ziepfel said.