Report: No charges in text message case against 5 city council members

Special prosecutor not recommending charges against 'Gang of 5'

CINCINNATI (FOX19) - The special prosecutor investigating four Cincinnati City Council members and one former member who admitted last year to discussing city business over private text messages has declined to charge them with dereliction of duty, according to FOX19 NOW’s media partners at the Enquirer.

“This episode should now be put behind us. They have apologized for and learned from their mistake," Attorney Tom Hodges told FOX19 NOW. Hodges represented Council Member Chris Seelbach in the case.

“Cincinnati is facing four crises all at once - a pandemic, a recession, a movement (for) greater racial justice, and the spike in crime. That’s what our community is concerned about and that’s what our leaders are focused on.”

Hodges says he’s spoken with Patrick Hanley, the special prosecutor appointed to the case by Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters.

“This is over,” Hodges said.

The ordeal began in April 2018 when conservative, anti-tax activist Mark Miller with COAST filed a civil suit accusing five Democrats on council of using secret means to discuss Mayor John Cranley asking then-City Manager Harry Black to resign. The communications took place over three months in early 2018 and violated Ohio’s Open Meeting Act and Cincinnati’s city charter, the lawsuit argued.

Those council members were Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld, Wendell Young, Greg Landsman and Tamaya Dennard, who resigned from council in March before pleading guilty to wire fraud in a separate case.

MORE | Council texts: Harry Black needs counseling, mayor ‘flat out lied’ | 'Amen! We’re the new Gang of Five: Secret council text messages released ahead of hearing

The lawsuit was settled in 2019 at a cost to the city of $176,000, of which $90,000 went to the law firm that launched the civil suit on Miller’s behalf. Another $10,000 went by statutory forfeiture because Young said he purposely deleted his text messages. The city also paid $75,000 in legal fees from outside lawyers to represent the city and the five council members in the suit, leaving the Open Meetings Act violation fine at $1,000.

Council Member Chris Smitherman proposed a motion to compel the five council members to repay the city, but the Ohio Ethics Commission said the implicated council members couldn’t vote on that motion, meaning it could not meet quorum requirements needed to pass into law.

In January 2020, the Ohio Auditor’s Office recommended referral for criminal prosecution of the council members for dereliction of duty charges.

Hanley reportedly convened a grand jury the same month. Previously he told FOX19 NOW he hoped to have the case resolved by Labor Day despite delays.

Hodges said earlier this year he had been in contact with Hanley and they were cooperating but didn’t think there was any Ohio law or precedent to support a criminal charge in the matter. He also has said the issue already was dealt with through the resolution of the civil case in court last year and that the investigation was politically motivated.

Reacting to the news Monday, Smitherman told FOX19 NOW: “It will be open season for ‘secret meetings’ across the State of OH. The ‘Gang of 5’ are walking away with $176,000 of taxpayer money with zero accountability. This is what justice looks like for the powerful (...) I hope the public will not reward them with a vote."

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