Trial brief: Key witness in PG Sittenfeld case faced potential crimes before he began working for FBI

Why did ex-Bengal Chinedum Ndukwe work for FBI?
PG Sittenfeld outside federal courthouse Sept. 7, 2021.png
Posted at 11:41 AM, May 18, 2022

CINCINNATI — The key cooperating witness, Chinedum Ndukwe, in the government’s public corruption case against former Cincinnati City Councilman PG Sittenfeld began working for the FBI because Ndukwe himself was accused of potential federal crimes, according to a newly filed court document.

In a defense brief filed late Tuesday, Sittenfeld’s lawyers revealed the new information about Ndukwe, a former Cincinnati Bengal and real estate developer, who prosecutors have publicly named as their key cooperating witness in the corruption case.

“Ndukwe began working for the government in March 2018 after an investigation of him revealed his involvement in campaign finance law violations, IRA early withdrawal violations and an assortment of other potential federal crimes,” according to the defense brief. Sittenfeld’s attorneys learned of this new information from a written “proffer” agreement that federal prosecutors had made with Ndukwe.

As the case against Sittenfeld moves to trial June 21, more details about the government’s years-long corruption probe at City Hall will emerge. The trial is expected to last three to four weeks with prominent developers, political strategists and former City Hall staffers likely testifying.

Ndukwe also helped the FBI gather evidence against former Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Pastor, who is awaiting trial in a separate public corruption indictment.

“Government disclosure shows that the government began paying Mr. Ndukwe to target public officials,” according to the defense brief.

Federal law enforcement officials described developer Ndukwe in heroic terms during two November 2020 press conferences, heralding his role as an informant key to their corruption indictments at City Hall.

“Mr. Ndukwe showed moral courage by coming forward,” said Chris Hoffman, special agent in charge of Cincinnati’s FBI office. “I’m hoping that others will draw on his courage and will refer these types of cases to the FBI.”

Former U.S. Attorney David Devillers said Ndukwe, felt the same as other city developers who “were just sick and tired of being involved in this culture or this expectation of pay to play … Mr. Ndukwe was vital and important to this investigation, and we thank him for everything that he’s done.”

But an I-Team investigation in December 2020 showed Ndukwe was chasing more than one City Hall deal while he was working for the FBI, causing some attorneys and politicians to raise questions about his involvement and his motivations.

The defense brief reveals that Ndukwe was “repeatedly admonished by his handlers for failing to record calls during the sting operation,” including a call with Sittenfeld on Sept. 21, 2018 in which Sittenfeld allegedly asked Ndukwe to raise $10,000 in donations for his campaign.

This unrecorded phone call could be key to the case, because Sittenfeld’s attorneys claim his actions were “not against the law, and in this case, also not unusual as Ndukwe was a long-time, enthusiastic supporter of Mr. Sittenfeld and a contributor to his past campaigns,” according to the defense brief.

But the six-count indictment against Sittenfeld casts this Sept. 21, 2018 phone call in a different light; that Sittenfeld contacted Ndukwe to “request a $10,000 campaign donation in checks from multiple limited liability companies.”

“On October 26, 208, Mr. Ndukwe, at the direction of the FBI, called Mr. Sittenfeld and told him that he had out-of-town investors interested in 435 Elm St., the dilapidated building in downtown Cincinnati across the street from the Duke Energy Convention Center. Mr. Ndukwe indicated the investors wanted to donate to Mr. Sittenfeld’s campaign through multiple LLCs,” according to the defense brief.

At a Nov. 7, 2018 lunch meeting Ndukwe introduced Sittenfeld to an FBI agent posing as an investor.

“Following lunch, Sittenfeld agreed to ‘deliver votes’ for the project in return for $20,000,” according to the indictment, which also claims Sittenfeld received four checks of $5,000 each Dec. 17, 2018.

Sittenfeld eventually introduced these undercover agents to several prominent civic leaders, including a former president of Xavier University and an executive of the Duke Energy Convention Center, according to the defense brief.

What jurors believe about Sittenfeld’s intent will determine his fate.

Also key to this case is Sittenfeld’s PAC, which is named the Progress and Growth PAC.Prosecutors call it a secret slush fund, but Sittenfeld’s attorneys say it is legal and transparent.

Sittenfeld, a Democrat, had been considered the front-runner to win last year’s Cincinnati mayoral race until the FBI arrested him in November 2020. A 20-page indictment charged him with two counts of honest services wire fraud, two counts of bribery and two counts of attempted extortion.

“This is not a case about personal gain – the government does not allege that money went into Mr. Sittenfeld’s pockets,” Sittenfeld's attorney, Charlie Rittgers, wrote in a motion to dismiss all charges.“Rather, the indictment alleges nothing more than that Mr. Sittenfeld engaged in the kind of routine conduct of elected officials in cities, counties and states across the nation.”

But prosecutors say what Sittenfeld did is a crime.

“It is not a defense to bribery that the public official would have done the official act anyway, even without payment; and receiving bribe payments through a PAC is no less corrupt,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer wrote in a recent court filing. “These actions are not … ‘everyday American democratic activity’—this is bribery.”

A former unnamed Cincinnati City Council member introduced Sittenfeld to the two undercover FBI agents on Feb. 26, 2018, seven months before he was targeted, according to the brief.

The FBI agents posed as investors and possible campaign donors who tried to get Sittenfeld to take a trip with them at least six different times to places such as Las Vegas, Miami and Nashville aboard a private plane, according to the defense brief.

“Unlike other local public officials, Mr. Sittenfeld never once took the (undercover agents) up on any of those offers,” according to the brief.

But Pastor did. He flew to Miami in September 2018 on a private plane to meet with investors and later boarded a yacht where he thought he was giving a presentation on minority investment, according to the indictment and Pastor’s former attorney Ben Dusing.

Prosecutors are also expected to file their trial brief in the Sittenfeld case this week.

Sittenfeld Trial Brief by WCPO 9 News on Scribd

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