CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Will five members of Cincinnati City Council - the so-called “Gang of Five" - refund taxpayers for footing their $176,000 legal bill over their text secret messages?
Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman is continuing to insist Council Members Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, Wendell Young, and Greg Landsman should repay the city.
The money went to outside lawyers and to settle a lawsuit seeking the five elected officials’ secret texts and emails, ones they used to privately conduct public city business.
Smitherman planned on Tuesday morning to bring a motion about the issue back up before Council’s Law and Public Safety Committee, of which he chairs.
But Smitherman postponed it until the next committee meeting in two weeks after the city’s cable and online streaming system was down for an unknown when the meeting was scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m.
It was restored about 10:15 a.m.
Smitherman, who recently announced he was not running for mayor in 2021 after all, first introduced the motion last spring, saying the taxpayers of Cincinnati shouldn’t have to pick up the tab for the Gang’s mistakes.
Seelbach, Sittenfeld, Dennard, Young, and Landsman admitted they violated the Ohio Open Meetings Act when they settled a lawsuit seeking their secret messages in March 2019.
Smitherman’s motion fell flat last year, however, after the city was informed in a letter by the Ohio Ethics Commission the five council members are prohibited from participating in discussions or deliberations or otherwise using their authority or influence, formally and informally, in matters regarding the motion, a resulting ordinance or any related procedural motions that arise under the city council’s parliamentary process that affect the motion’s passage, tabling or non-passage.
Smitherman said things are different in light of the Ohio Auditor’s Office recently making a referral for criminal prosecution to the city of Cincinnati against the five council members for the misdemeanor charge of dereliction of duty.
A special prosecutor has been appointed to consider the case and decide if a grand jury will hear evidence.
The referral for criminal prosecution is only a recommendation at this point.
The recommendation to prosecute is based on a review of text messages among the council members illegally discussing city business between Jan. 18, 2018 and March 24, 2018.
The settlement cost the city - ultimately taxpayers - $101,000. Some $90,000 of it went for fees for the attorneys who represented the anti-tax activist who sued to the texts. Another $10,000 of the settlement was a statutory forfeiture because one council member deleted his text messages, and the other $1,000 was for a statutory forfeiture for violating Ohio’s Open Meetings Act, according to the Ohio Ethics Commission letter.
Taxpayers also shelled out another $75,000 in outside legal fees for the Gang of Five after a vote before the full council on Sept. 19, 2018.
Council voted on two measures related to the case that actually earmarked up to $150,000 in city money for outside legal fees: Spending $75,000 in city money for legal representation for the city and another $75,000 for outside lawyers for Sittenfeld, Young, Seelbach, Dennard, and Landsman.
None of the council members abstained from the votes.
The issue to spend money to represent the city passed in a 6-3 vote with Sittenfeld, Seelbach Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman voting no. Dennard, Young, Landsman, David Mann, Amy Murray, and Jeff Pastor voted yes.
The vote to use city money to pay for legal fees for council members passed 5-4 with Sittenfeld, Seelbach, Young and Smitherman voting no. Dennard, Landsman, David Mann, Amy Murray, and Jeff Pastor voted yes.
A conflict of interest was created for City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething to represent council members when an attempt was made by former council candidate Derek Bauman to include Smitherman in the lawsuit. (The judge over the case ultimately rejected Bauman’s request).
At last check, four of the five “Gang” members: Seelbach, Sittenfeld, Landsman, and Young, acted on their own last year to repay their $200 share of the $1,00 fine for violating the Open Meetings Act, city records show.
At that time, we asked the solicitor’s office for records showing if and when Dennard repaid her share.
We never received them.
Smitherman has asked Peter Stackpole with the City Solicitor’s Office to clarify who has paid $200 and who has not if anyone.
He asked Stackpole to respond during the Law and Public Safety Committee to several other questions including:
- Was the original council vote for outside legal fees for the ‘Gang of Five’ in September 2018 that Dennard, Seelbach, Sittenfeld, Landsman, and Young participated on regarding outside legal fees a conflict of interest?
- How does the city resolve this under their charter form of government?
- Does the city need a charter amendment going forward for citizens to deal with cases when the majority of council is “compromised” and a new majority is needed for votes?