‘Gang of Five’: More secret council texts coming, taxpayer costs approaching $1M, attorney says

Updated: Mar. 9, 2019 at 7:26 PM EST
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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Just when it seemed the secret texting scandal of Cincinnati City Council’s “Gang of Five” would finally wind down with the long-anticipated release of thousands of messages, it erupted all over again Friday.

“What matters is we can continue to work together,” Mayor John Cranley said Saturday.

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But new developments show this controversy won’t be ending anytime soon.

  • More secret council texts may be coming

The city has yet to release all the text messages, including ones involving two or more members of the Gang of Five and a third party such as former City Manager Harry Black, said Brian Shrive, an attorney representing the anti-tax activist who sued for the communications. He said he emailed the city Friday asking for those.

“We noticed those have not been produced. There could be thousands,” Brian Shrive told FOX19 NOW Friday.

“We know Harry Black sent out text messages to all nine council members. We didn’t get any of those. Why not?” he asked. “We know that they had other communications involving other third parties. Where are those? Joe Blow already has them, so they are private?”

The city has 10 days from the settlement date (Thursday) to release all the texts and 20 days to release the emails, a copy of it shows.

“I’ve heard they have not even gotten them compiled yet," Shrive said.

Tamaya Dennard called the former second-in-command at the Cincinnati Police Department, Assistant Chief David Bailey, a “racist” in a text to Councilman Chris Seelbach on March 8, 2018.

Dennard was sued individually and in her capacity as a member of Cincinnati City Council.

Dennard texted Seelbach about a tweet he sent out supporting Bailey on March 8, 2018.

He tweeted a few hours after Black pushed Bailey out. Bailey said in a deposition related to a former Cincinnati police officer’s lawsuit last year that he was told he had to leave or be fired from the police department after more than 30 years.

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“Just saw your tweet,” she texted Seelbach March 8, 2018. “Not trying to undermine your friendship, but Bailey is a racist and has been for some time.”

The suit was filed so fast -- just one day after the text messages were released -- because there is a one-year statute of limitation for defamation suits. FOX19 contacted Bailey for comment Thursday when we spotted the text. He said he was unaware of it and referred us to his lawyer, Brian Gillan, who declined comment.

Gillan declined comment again Friday.

FOX19 also sought comment Friday from Dennard, the city solicitor’s office and a city spokesman, but we received no response.

  • Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman speaks out.

Smitherman issued a lengthy, emotional statement, one that addressed texts two of his colleagues, Seelbach and P.G. Sittenfeld, and an exchange from about a year ago that accused him of using his wife’s illness for political gain.

RELATED | Smitherman coped with texts about wife by visiting her grave

In interviews with FOX19 NOW, he said his colleagues have not personally apologized to him and Sittenfeld showed up at his wife’s funeral even though a member of Sittenfeld’s staff was notified of the family’s wishes that he not attend.

“My beautiful wife, Pamela, spent the last two years in bed and had plenty of time to watch TV and was very concerned about the text messaging scandal,” Smitherman said. "It was clear to her and our children that the mastermind behind the ‘Gang of Five’ was Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld and there were plenty of rumors that he had not said positive things about my dying wife.

“She made it clear that she did not want any of the members of the ‘Gang of Five’ to attend her service with the exception of Council Member Wendell Young. Council Member Young and his wife, Kathy, provided meals, they fed Pam. Kathy literally fed Pam and Council Member Young and Pamela shared the same nurse. The nurse would go to his home and our home and back to his home. So we knew with great confidence the Young family had nothing to do with comments about Pam,” Smitherman said.

“So when Pamela passed, I reached out to our attorney, Steve Goodin, and requested that he notify the other four members of the self-proclaimed ‘Gang of Five’ that they were not welcome at her services until we were able to read their text messages. Our attorney notified Jared Kamrass and that’s why the other three did not show. Steve was at the service and saw Council Member Sitttenfeld walk in, not get in the greeting line and go up to the balcony area without talking to anybody, not to our knowledge. None of us, our immediate family, knew he was there,” Smitherman said.

"...Betsy and David Mann were in and out of our house checking on Pam. To call on David and ask him whether he should attend the funeral or not is manipulation. That’s all that is. It was clear he was asked not to attend and did. We find it incredibly disrespectful now that the text messages are out.

“...instead of apologizing to our family for his disrespectful behavior, he continues to double down and act as if he cared about our family and cared about Pamela,” Smitherman said.

“Council Member Sittenfeld owes our family a public apology for his behavior,” he said, adding that all of the “Gang of Five” members also should pay back the $101,000 settlement and other associated costs of about $76,000 in legal fees and for outside vendors.

FOX19 reached out to a spokesman for Sittenfeld and received this response:

“No one ever, ever reached out, so Council Member Sittenfeld specifically sought Council Member Mann’s advice, who encouraged him to go and pay his respects,” the statement reads.

"He joins with the rest of the city in mourning the passing of Mrs. Smitherman -- a beloved wife, mother, and a teacher. Council Member Sittenfeld admires Christopher’s resiliency in the face of tragedy, and continues to pray for his colleague and his whole family during this incredibly difficult time.”

Mann confirmed to FOX19 NOW he encouraged Sittenfeld to attend the funeral but declined to discuss it.

  • The total cost to taxpayers is substantially higher than the $101,000 settlement.

The city paid $101,000 this week to resolve the lawsuit related to the secret communications.

Shrive says it’s nearly $1 million when you figure in former city manager Black’s resignation, when he quit in April and then the payout in September to avoid a lawsuit.

Black and Cranley worked out a deal where he would quit with $274,000 severance in his contract and agree to leave with a release of all claims against the city in exchange for a total payment including the severance of $423,000.

PREVIOUS | Mann wants more council control over pricey settlements

Shrive says that’s when the "Gang of Five” began its work in earnest in opposition to this agreement.

They put out a news release rejecting it and that sparked Miller’s interest because he suspected, correctly as it turns out, the majority of council had communicated and decided that city business in private.

Shrive asked for their emails and texts on Miller’s behalf, and then the lawsuit was filed when the city produced some records showing illegal meetings occurred and then Miller didn’t receive the texts and some additional emails he requested.

By that point, City Hall was the scene of a major public feud between the mayor and city manager. Both alleged wrongdoing against each other, and the majority of council didn’t want to fork over a huge payout. Various council members also said at the time they felt allegations the men were making against each other should be looked into.

The dispute ended in April when Black lost the majority council support in the fallout over 16-year-old Kyle Plush’s death. Black quit literally minutes before a special City Council meeting convened to terminate him.

He left with the $274,000 in his contract -- but then collected another $370,000 later that year after his lawyers threatened to sue the following month.

“At the time, the ‘Gang of Five’ had touted that they saved the city money, but the combined total is greater than the original payment (Black) and the mayor worked out," Shrive said Friday.

Then, costs associated with the lawsuit to obtain the Gang of Five’s secret messages began to climb in legal fees for Miller. City Council earmarked $150,000 for outside lawyers to come in when an attempt to bring Smitherman into the lawsuit created that need.

The judge on the case ultimately rejected efforts to make Smitherman a part of the litigation.

“So if you add all those costs up it’s about $800,000,” Shrive said. “Ultimately, this is all about P.G. Sittenfeld’s desire to wrest control of the city from the mayor in violation of the city charter and state law and hold that position leading to the mayor’s race in the 2021 election.”

Sittenfeld is rumored to run, but he has not announced.

Smitherman announced last year he plans to run.

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