CINCINNATI — Monday kicks off the second week of the public corruption trial of former Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.
Early Monday morning juror demographics were released for the first time.
Gender: 8 female, 4 male
Race: 2 African American, 1 Asian, 9 White
Education: 10 at least some college, 2 high school education
Marital Status: 10 married, 2 separated or divorced
Homeowner status: 11 own a home, 1 does not
County residence: 3 Hamilton, 5 Butler, 3 Warren, 1 Brown
Occupation: customer service, CPA, manager, programmer, physician assistant, planner/scheduler, medical records, administrative assistant, manager, supervisor, homemaker, professor.
Gender: 4 female
Race: 1 African America, 3 white
Education: 2 at least some college, 1 high school, 1 nursing school
Marital status: 2 married, 2 widowed
Homeowner status: 3 own a home, 1 does not
County of residence: 1 Hamilton, 2 Warren, 1 Clermont
Occupation: on medical leave, retired, nurse, buyer
Here's where things stand right now
P.G. Sittenfeld may be the one on trial for public corruption, but the most dramatic testimony in U.S. District Court on Friday came from an FBI agent who talked about the behavior of his political cohorts.
FBI case agent Nathan Holbrook revealed under cross-examination that Sittenfeld’s fundraising strategist, Jared Kamrass, confessed to pocketing $15,000 in cash that FBI agents gave him to deliver to a different campaign: then-Mayor John Cranley.
Kamrass is on the witness list for the prosecution and is expected to testify next week. He is a well-known political consultant who helped many local candidates raise money, including Cranley who unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic primary for governor in May.
It is uncertain why undercover FBI agents donated to Cranley’s campaign through Kamrass.
Holbrook also revealed that the FBI’s key cooperating witness, Chinedum Ndukwe, admitted to evading campaign finance limits and other alleged crimes before signing a proffer agreement to cooperate in the government’s corruption probe at City Hall.
Ndukwe, a former Cincinnati Bengal turned real estate developer, secretly recorded phone calls with Sittenfeld and introduced him to undercover FBI agents who were posing as developers.
Holbrook said Ndukwe admitted to withdrawing $40,000 from an IRA account. He gave it to a friend, who kept $5,000 and put the remaining $35,000 into bank accounts so that Ndukwe could avoid reporting rules.
In 2013, Ndukwe gave money orders in other’s names to three candidates as political donations: Cranley, who was running for mayor, and Christopher Smitherman and Charlie Winburn, who were running for re-election to City Council, Holbrook testified.
None of those donations went to Sittenfeld, Holbrook said.
Sittenfeld’s attorney, Charlie H. Rittgers, questioned Holbrook about why the FBI zeroed in on his client during its corruption probe at City Hall in 2018 and 2019. But he didn’t get a concrete answer before court recessed on Friday. Cross-examination will resume on Monday.
Attorneys for Sittenfeld have long argued that their client was selectively prosecuted, while the FBI ignored other behavior at City Hall.
Holbrook has been on the witness stand for two days. He’s answered some of the biggest questions that have hung over City Hall since three council members were arrested on separate public corruption charges in 2020. How did this case start, and who started it?
By mid-March, Ndukwe had signed a proffer agreement with the FBI, agreeing to work for them to root out potential corruption. The FBI paid him $27,000 in cash throughout 2018 and 2019 for his work on the Sittenfeld case and “multiple other investigations,” Holbrook said.
Holbrook also brought in two FBI undercover agents who had been working in the Cincinnati area since September 2017.He asked them to pose as wealthy investors in development deals “to determine what was going on in the city of Cincinnati.”
Those agents had aliases as wealthy investors with development deals across the nation, who were looking to renovate Convention Place Mall downtown into a boutique hotel with legal sports betting.
Over the past two days, jurors have heard dozens of recorded phone calls and watched secret videos of Sittenfeld meeting with undercover agents who were known as Rob Miller from North Carolina, his business partner Brian Bennett of Nashville, and their boss, Vinnie, who liked to spend time on his yacht in Miami but lived in Providence.
Sittenfeld, who has maintained his innocence, was a rising political star and the front-runner to be the next mayor of Cincinnati before FBI agents arrested him in November 2020 for allegedly promising support and “official acts,” to help the development of Convention Place downtown 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.
On Friday, jurors watched a video of Sittenfeld meeting with the undercover agents in a Columbus hotel room on Sept. 24, 2019. They ate chicken wings and talked about how to place sports betting inside a hotel that the agents wanted to develop at Convention Place.
“We got to make sure the sports betting thing goes through, and the Cincinnati thing happens,” Sittenfeld can be heard saying. He goes on to talk about how sports betting can be created in a “controlled environment” in the city by using zoning codes.
“This is what I would like you to do. I don’t mind what it costs … so today, you hear me … we’re gonna take care of you, not a problem. And then keep these guys (two undercover agents) in the loop,” the agent who was known as ‘Vinnie,’ said. Sittenfeld responded, “yeah.”
The agent known as ‘Vinnie’ then gave Sittenfeld two $5,000 checks paid to his political action fund, or PAC.
A unanimous City Council, including Sittenfeld, voted to sell the blighted Convention Place property at 435 Elm Street to The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority in 2019, to get the liability off the city’s books and give it a better chance for redevelopment.
But Ndukwe, and the FBI agents posing as investors, still hoped to get an agreement with the Port to develop the project. It got stalled because Port CEO Laura Brunner was pushing for a better proposal and potentially wanted to open it up to other developers.
Sittenfeld stepped in, as jurors heard on several secretly recorded phone calls.
In a November 2019 phone call, Sittenfeld told undercover agent ‘Vinnie,’ that he had a long intense phone call with Brunner and said, “I basically forced her to move forward.”
“She likes to act like she’s the king, but she’s not,” Sittenfeld said, referring to Brunner, and saying the Port is 100% accountable to local elected leaders who control its budget.
“Frankly, I have applied some pressure already,” Sittenfeld said, referring to the deal he wanted Brunner to take from Ndukwe and the undercover FBI agents to develop the property.
Brunner apparently wanted Ndukwe to pay a lease fee on the property, submit a better development proposal and perhaps open the deal up to other developers. She is on the prosecution’s witness list and is expected to testify early next week. The trial is expected to last through the week.