CINCINNATI — Two undercover agents who posed as wealthy investors testified on Monday in the public corruption trial of former Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, revealing how wide-reaching their investigations were, and how many people were on the FBI’s radar.
Jurors first heard testimony from 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. But he wanted to make a major investment in the blighted Convention Place Mall in Cincinnati.
Jurors never knew Vinny’s real name because U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole allowed him to testify under his alias. He recently retired after nearly 25 years in the FBI, after participating in hundreds of undercover operations, including 15 to 20 public corruption cases.
Vinny described his persona in Cincinnati as “a high-balling” real estate investor and developer, who was rich and rude. He made a cameo appearance at the Reds Opening Day party hosted by FBI agents who were posing as developers on March 28, 2019, in which many local and state elected leaders attended. That party was hosted at the 580 Building penthouse apartment, which the FBI rented.
Vinny briefly met Sittenfeld for the first time at the Opening Day party where he was sitting at a table with female undercover FBI agents. But Vinny didn’t spend much time with Sittenfeld.
“I was at the party to engage a different subject of the investigation,” Vinny testified, without naming the subject.
Vinny met Sittenfeld again 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.
Jurors watched the video of that hotel meeting for the second time on Monday. In fact, much of the day was spent recapping the same testimony, phone calls, text messages and recordings that prosecutors unveiled last week.
Both sides seemed intent on shaping their version of the case, regardless of how much time it took or how interested the jury appeared to be.
On the videotape, 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.
“We can control things in ways that seem totally unrelated,” Sittenfeld said, later suggesting that city zoning and licensing could be used to help him.
Later in the video, Vinny can be seen giving Sitteneld an envelope that contained two $5,000 checks as campaign donations to his PAC.
In the months afterward, Sittenfeld called Vinny several times. In a November 2019 call, Vinny said he was taking his yacht from Virginia to Miami to which Sittenfeld responded, “I want to be you when I grow up.”
“You want to be old, bald and fat,” Vinny can be heard saying, with laughter.
“I want to be a baller like you,” Sittenfeld said.
But this wasn’t new testimony for jurors. Much of Monday was spent rehashing what prosecutors presented last week and listening to lengthy cross-examination from Sittenfeld’s lawyers who are trying to show context to the jury.
Charlie Rittgers repeatedly pointed out Sittenfeld was not the first to bring up sports betting, the FBI agents did; he never asked for a political donation from the undercover agents in 2019; he frequently offered or paid for drinks and meals with the undercover agents; he never took a trip to Miami or Las Vegas or Nashville despite numerous offers from the agents; he wanted to develop Convention Place to benefit the city; and his behavior can only be viewed as everyday American politics.
But prosecutors portray a dramatically different version of Sittenfeld, for promising to “deliver the votes,” and pressure leaders to help the development of Convention Place, whether or not it was in taxpayers' best interest, in exchange for $40,000 in campaign donations from undercover FBI agents.
He faces six charges related to public corruption, including bribery and attempted extortion, and could be sentenced to five to six years in prison if convicted.
While Vinny played a ‘cameo’ or a supporting role in the Sittenfeld investigation, two other undercover agents played key roles as the faces of the FBI's undercover operation here: Rob Miller from North Carolina and Brian Bennett from Nashville.
Miller testified under his alias as the prosecution’s fifth witness in the case. Miller is now a supervisory special agent working at FBI headquarters in the undercover section. He has taken part in more than 30 undercover operations and 10 to 12 were public corruption.
He testified that he made a mistake in his personal life while in Cincinnati that resulted in him receiving a letter of censure from the FBI for unprofessional conduct off-duty. He said he had a consensual sexual relationship in the condo at the 580 Building that caused an issue for the reputation of the case.
Miller had meals, dinners or meetings with Sittenfeld at least seven times. Many downtown restaurants were repeatedly mentioned in the secretly recorded audiotapes such as Sotto, Nada, Via Vite and Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse.
Among the most interesting bits of testimony on Monday:
- Under cross-examination, FBI case agent Nathan Holbrook revealed that the agency spent $100,000 to send cooperating witness Chinedum Ndukwe on a trip to Miami as part of another investigation for a high-end strip club, fancy restaurants, expensive drinks, a private plane, a yacht and a nice hotel. Court documents from a separate public corruption indictment against former Councilman Jeff Pastor, who is awaiting trial, reveal that he took a trip to Miami with undercover agents who were posing as investors.
- Holbrook also revealed that public corruption is the number one criminal priority in the FBI’s Cincinnati division.
- FBI agents Brian Bennett and Rob Miller were staying at downtown hotels early in their time in Cincinnati because they were looking into “other investigations.” But the FBI decided to rent the 580 Building at $4,000 a month for 17 months. They used the space to court Sittenfeld and for other corruption investigations.
- Miller testified that he met Sittenfeld for the first time in February 2018. He was briefly introduced to Sittenfeld at a dinner where he was busy meeting many elected leaders in Cincinnati.
- Sittenfeld’s defense team added two new witnesses to their already extensive witness list: Christie Bryant Kuhns — a former Ohio State Representative for the 32nd district, who is a lawyer and community advocate; and Means Cameron, a Cincinnati clothing entrepreneur with the successful BlaCkOWned brand.
- On Friday Judge Cole met with a witness who is under subpoena from the defense who had concerns about the scope of his testimony. The judge met with the unnamed witness and his attorney in chambers.
- The judge told a sketch artist that she could not draw the undercover FBI agents while they testified to protect their identities.