Judge: ’Gang of Five’ city council members should resign

‘You essentially lied to the people of this city’
Updated: Mar. 7, 2019 at 3:10 PM EST
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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - A Hamilton County judge tore into Cincinnati City Council’s “Gang of Five” Thursday, saying they violated the public trust and should quit.

“You essentially lied to the people of this city,” Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman told them. “The people of the city thought that when you had a city council meeting that, in fact, was the city council meeting. But, in reality, it was a charade. It was smoke and mirrors. It wasn’t the real meeting. The real business was being handled through these emails and texts.

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

"So, the judge continued, “you really lied to the citizens and the importance of that point is you’ve lost the trust, not only of your other fellow council members, who you really need to apologize to in addition to the citizens of this city you need to apologize to, you lost their trust.”

“But you’ve also lost the trust of the citizens of the city and it takes a long time to get trust back. when you commit an act like this, when you’re essentially lying and being dishonest and conducting business on the side in clear violation of the Sunshine Law, the trust is gone. It is going to take along time to get that trust back. But more important, it’s the institution, it’s the institution of city council. It’s going to take a long time, it hurt that institution. It’s going to take a long time to get that trust back.”

All “Gang of Five” council members were in the courtroom during the brief hearing: P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Wendell Young, Tamaya Dennard and Greg Landsman.

They did not speak and sat in the courtroom audience. Attorneys for the city and the anti-tax activist who sued for their secret text messages sat at tables before the judge.

Ruehlman had insisted all appear before him in court before he signed off on the settlement. He signed the $101,000 settlement agreement over their texting case. It will be paid with taxpayer money.

"I realize $101,000 might not be a lot of to some of the members of council. I know that there are some very wealthy members of city council and $101,000 is not a lot of money to a rich person. But to the men and women who work for the city, like the police officers and firemen who risk their lives everyday for us, that’s a lot of money.

“And to the inspectors that inspect our streets and bridges and keep our streets safe, that’s a lot of money. That’s a lot of money. To the sanitation workers out there, you know, they clean up all our messes. It’s a lot of money,” the judge said.

"The men and women every night when it’s snowy like in a couple days it’s going to be snowy and icy and they are going to go out there in the middle of the night in big trucks and clean our streets. It’s a lot of money. And that’s their money. That’s their hard-earned tax dollars that have just been poured down the drain on something that should have never, ever happened.

“So,” he continued, “you’ve got the lies and deceit, meetings that’s really weren’t for real, a charade. You’ve got the trust issue, it’s lost forever and you’ve got the money. And I really believe that five city council members should resign and should pay this back. They should resign and pay it back. No city voter should ever, ever vote for them again if they ever try to run for office.”

His treatment of the case came under criticism by the Hamilton County Democratic Party.

The chairwoman issued a statement saying the “exploitation of this issue by far-right members of the Republican Party - from Councilman Christopher Smitherman to prominent members of COAST - divisive politics at its worst.”

Seelbach also criticized the judge in a tweet sent shortly after the brief hearing concluded.

The judge is not permitted by law to comment on a pending court case and will not comment, his office tells FOX19 NOW.

Ruehlman is still considering whether to hold Young in contempt of court and set an April 1 hearing on that matter.

Young purposely deleted his text messages, and Dennard accidentally destroyed hers when her phone fell into a pool, court records in the case show, although Dennard disputed that Thursday, saying in a tweet her phone was damaged when it got wet at a pool in August.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters convened a grand jury late last year to look into the destroyed messages. The council members were under a judge’s order issued Oct. 23 to retain all texts and emails since Jan. 1.

The judge issued the order as part of a public records lawsuit related to the secret text string the “Gang” communicated on outside of Ohio Open Meetings Act.

Young admitted he destroyed his text messages, according to a copy of the proposed settlement FOX19 NOW obtained earlier this week.

Gang of Five: Wendell Young arrives to testify before grand jury

But in court Thursday, his lawyer, Scott Croswell, said he had just spoken with Deters’ office before the hearing began. He said they conveyed to him that their analysis of Young’s phone was no messages were destroyed on it after the judge’s order.

If that turns out to be the case, Ruehlman responded, he will cancel the hearing.

Young has never publicly explained why he destroyed his texts.

He has repeatedly declined comment and did not respond to a request for comment earlier this week when we learned the settlement terms.

Deters was not in court Thursday, but a spokeswoman for his office was. He is watching to see how the case is resolved in Ruehlman’s courtroom and has not decided yet whether to pursue criminal charges.

Julie Wilson issued a statement on Deters’ behalf Thursday afternoon.

“We cannot tell when Young’s text messages were deleted," Deters’ statement reads. “Some messages were, in fact, deleted.”

We read Deters’ statement to Croswell for his response.

“Councilman Young has never denied deleting the messages, but it was well before any hearings in Judge Ruehlman’s room and any texts that he deleted were already public record at the time he deleted them," Croswell said.

“The reason there is no evidence that Councilman Young deleted the messages is because he did not, in fact, delete the text messages after Judge Ruehlman’s order.

"So if the prosecutor is saying they have no proof, I would agree with that and take it a step further and say it’s because he didn’t delete them after the ruling. If it ever came to a debate, there is plenty of secondary evidence which would establish that he, in fact, did not delete the text messages after Ruehlman’s ruling.”

Croswell declined to elaborate on the “secondary evidence.”

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.

We asked the city to tell how much money all those hours cost taxpayers and got this response from Woerner:

“.....attorneys in the City Solicitor’s Office are salaried employees who, for the most part, do not bill their time to other departments. Therefore, the City does not have a record that reflects the expense of City attorneys’ time spent on this matter. However, the City Solicitor’s Office does maintain a timesheet database which provides a rough estimate of time that some members of the department have spent on this case. That estimated number of hours is 405.”

That’s not a good enough explanation for Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman. He wrote an email to City Solicitor Paula Boggs-Muething requesting a monetary figure.

“Please provide my office with an updated invoice for any costs billed to the city related to the Gang of Five case,” he wrote Monday. "Please provide the information in the same format provided previously to my office.

“I realize city council authorized a spend of $150K. Taxpayers deserve to know how much of their money was spent protecting five members of council who broke Ohio Open Meeting Laws. I am still unclear how much it cost the city to defend the Gang of Five.”

As part of the settlement, 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.

After the hearing Thursday morning, Council members issued apologies in statements to FOX19 NOW and on Twitter.

The case began in April when anti-tax activist Mark Miller with COAST filed suit.

The lawsuit accused 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.

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.

More of that chatter was in the texts released Thursday.

We reached out to the mayor’s office for a comment but did not hear back.

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