CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - A Hamilton County judge ordered the release of more “Gang of Five” secret text messages and cleared the way for Cincinnati City Council members to be questioned under oath.
The ruling was expected. In fact, on Friday, some of the messages were voluntarily released by a lawyer representing the five council members: P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, Wendell Young, Chris Seelbach and Greg Landsman.
In his decision Monday, Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman said all texts relevant to the Gang of Five’s secret conversations - even if they were just exchanged between two council members - must be released.
“We’re dealing with elected officials,” the judge said. “When you get elected to office I think some politicians think that they work for themselves. They work for the people who elected them. Although some of these things might be embarrassing, I think they should be released and I’ll decide then whether or not it will be introduced into evidence.”
Ruehlman also denied a motion by former city councilman Derek Bauman to intervene in the lawsuit and accusing Vice Mayor Chris Smitherman and other council members of doing the same thing in a different text message string.
The text message string was first revealed in the spring when FOX19 sought the messages in response to a lawsuit filed by a taxpayer alleging the majority of Cincinnati City Council violated Ohio’s Open Meeting Act and the city charter.
The suit names Sittenfeld, Dennard, Young, Seelbach and Landsman.
It describes the Democrats as “a cabal of five rogue members” of Council holding illegal, secret meetings via email and text messages to discuss Mayor John Cranley asking then-City Manager Harry Black to resign and other issues such as the FC Cincinnati stadium deal and Cranley’s nominee for an appointment to the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA).
Reached at City Hall for reaction Monday, Sittenfeld, Seelbach and Landsman all declined comment.
Dennard has not responded to a request for comment.
“I’m not worried about it,” Young said.
That may be, but the lawsuit is costing taxpayers.
Council recently approved spending up to $150,00 for lawyers for the “Gang of Five.”
At the time, the mayor said the city had no choice but to take steps to protect itself legally since the city solicitor can’t represent the city in the case.
A total of 9 lawyers showed up in court Monday to face off against Brian Shrive, the lawyer who sued for the secret messages on behalf of taxpayer Mark Miller and treasurer of COAST.
After the judge’s ruling, Shrive said he plans to begin deposing the “Gang of Five” as soon as possible.
This case, he said, is about public accountability for elected officials and timely release of public records.
"Both decisions by Judge Ruehlman were right on the law and the facts. It made no sense to include Smitherman in the case other than it was a political ploy by Sittenfeld’s cronies. It was good to see Judge Ruehlman see through their action and deny the motion. It would have just interfered with our ability to manage our case the way want to manage it.
“Judge Ruehlman also saw through their attempt to selectively release some text messages to try to undermine our case rather than try to participate in the process. The text dump Friday didn’t help them. They are playing hide the ball and the judge isn’t going to permit it.”