Gang of Five: Cincinnati taxpayers to pay $101K in settlement over secret council texts

Gang of Five: Cincinnati taxpayers to pay $101K in settlement over secret council texts
(Source: WXIX)

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - City taxpayers will shell out $101,000 to settle a lawsuit over secret text messages and emails exchanged by five council members in violation of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, according to city records released Monday.

The self-described “Gang of Five," Wendell Young, P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach and Greg Landsman, admit to breaking the law by discussing city business through the communications, a copy of the proposed settlement shows. Young also admits he destroyed his text messages.

“Through the agreement and the soon to be released emails and text messages we have proven every allegation in the complaint and achieved our goal of transparency," said Brian Shrive, one of the attorneys for the anti-tax activist who sued for the messages.

“Sunshine will once again be proven to be the best disinfectant. Cincinnatians will now know why their city council voted the way it did last year. The debates that should have taken place in public will now be available to the public.”

None of the five “Gang” members responded to requests for comment Monday.

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman called the entire episode “a waste of money."

It’s not over yet, he warned.

“They are north of $200,000. Because this is criminal, it’s unclear why the taxpayer needs to pay the bill. That’s the question. The question is why are we on the hook for their criminal behavior?”

FOX19 NOW obtained the proposed agreement, as well as drafts, via a public records request. A Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge is expected to approve the settlement Thursday.

The city of Cincinnati will issue a total payment to the anti-tax activist who sued, Mark Miller of Coalition Opposed to Additional Taxes and Spending (COAST) in the amount of $101,000 “as a civil forfeiture, statutory damages and payment of reasonable attorneys’ fees," city records show.

Here’s how it breaks out:

  • $90,000 to cover Miller’s court costs. He was represented by the Finney Law Firm.
  • $10,000 in statutory forfeiture for Councilman Wendell Young destroying his text messages by deleting them from his phone
  • $1,000 to Miller

This comes on top of $71,963 the city already spent last year in outside lawyers and a vendor for the five council members: P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Wendell Young, Tamaya Dennard and Greg Landsman.

The city had approved spending up to $150,000 for outside attorneys.

The city’s staff lawyers spent an estimated 450 hours on the case, according to Emily Smart Woerner, chief counsel of litigation in the City Solicitor’s Office.

Gang of Five text messages (Photo: FOX19 NOW/Jennifer Edwards Baker)
Gang of Five text messages (Photo: FOX19 NOW/Jennifer Edwards Baker)

Cincinnati city officials now also have to draw up meeting minutes based on the secret texts and emails so there is a public record of the communications.

The settlement also requires the Gang of Five to release the texts and emails they exchanged between Jan. 1 through most of October.

The case began in April when Miller filed suit, accusing 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 the then-City Manager Harry Black to resign in violation of Ohio’s Sunshine Law and the city charter.

Last fall, Ruehlman ordered the Gang to turn over all texts and emails from Jan. 1 through most of October, even ones they exchanged with just one other person. That was more than the lawsuit sought, just six weeks of messages in March and April.

City attorneys appealed the ruing to the First District Court of Appeals.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman orders "Gang of Five" to turn over their text messages in an Oct. 22 ruling. (FOX19 NOW/file)
Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman orders "Gang of Five" to turn over their text messages in an Oct. 22 ruling. (FOX19 NOW/file)

Three council members turned the texts and emails over - Landsman, Sittenfeld and Seelbach.

But in November, a city attorney informed Shrive messages on Young and Dennard’s phones had been destroyed.

The attorney said Young intentionally deleted his messages from his phone, and Dennard’s were accidentally destroyed when her phone accidentally fell into a pool, Shrive wrote in court records.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters launched a grand jury investigation and sent deputies with subpoenas to City Hall to obtain the Gang’s cell phones.

A lawyer, referred to as a “special master” was appointed by the court at Deters’ request to help prosecutors review the messages once they were downloaded from council members’ phones. The special master turned his reports over to prosecutors last month.

Deters abruptly announced last month he was turning the texts over to Ruehlman.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters (FOX19 NOW/file)
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters (FOX19 NOW/file)

Deters said an open meetings law violation would only result in fines while the judge could impose a more serious sentence.

The judge can hold people in contempt of court for disobeying his court order to retain all messages.

He has ordered all five council members to appear before him Thursday.

Deters described the texts as “sophomoric in nature and will probably be embarrassing,"

Since the lawsuit was filed, attorneys for the Gang have released all of the text messages they exchanged in the group string, not ones exchanged between two council members.

Those messages were eyebrow-raising, with Young calling the mayor a liar and referring to him as “little sucker."

In another, Sittenfeld urged the former city manager to seek counseling.

In other messages, Black promised Seelbach he would fix problems with the streetcar if Seelbach would vote to keep Black.

The Gang also discussed Cranley’s nominee to the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority board (which was ultimately rejected in a 6-3 vote) and FC Cincinnati’s stadium in the West End.

Council texts: Harry Black needs counseling, mayor ‘flat out lied’

Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young heads into the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office Tuesday with his wife after being served with a subpoena in late November. (Photo: FOX19 NOW/Matt Wood)
Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young heads into the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office Tuesday with his wife after being served with a subpoena in late November. (Photo: FOX19 NOW/Matt Wood)

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