Cincinnati’s vice mayor calls for charter change to remove council members charged with a felony

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman is calling for a change to the city's charter that would...
Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman is calling for a change to the city's charter that would prohibit council members from serving if they are charged with a felony crime.(FOX19 NOW)
Updated: Nov. 13, 2020 at 10:35 AM EST
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman is calling for changes to the city of Cincinnati’s charter that would prohibit council members from continuing to serve once they are charged with a felony crime.

This comes after two council members, Tamaya Dennard and Jeff Pastor, were accused in the past year of taking bribes from developers.

In Ohio, elected officials who are convicted of felonies are prohibited from holding public office, but there is no statewide or local rule forcing them out if they are charged. Suspension proceedings can begin if state charges are filed related to their office, but that process is not immediate.

A federal indictment unsealed earlier this week accuses Pastor of soliciting and receiving $55,000 in bribes in exchange for his votes on council for two development projects August 2018 to February 2019. The allegations against Pastor trace back to the former Convention Place Mall at 435 Elm Street.

He is charged with 10 counts including wire fraud, bribery, attempted extortion by a government official, and money laundering.

Federal prosecutors say Pastor began soliciting money from developers shortly after he took office in early 2018 and at time accepted bags of cash in return for his vote or other favorable treatment.

His business partner, Tyran Marshall, also is charged in the corruption case. Prosecutors describe him as “a middleman” who arranged for some payments and set up a charitable nonprofit Pastor used to “sanitize” money from the alleged bribes.

The federal investigation included undercover FBI agents posing as developers and using electronic surveillance. At least two whistleblowers also helped to uncover the pay-to-play scheme, according to the U. S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio.

RELATED: Pastor’s attorney questions whistleblowers' motives, suggests Pastor may have evidence

Pastor was absent from Thursday’s council meeting and asked to be excused.

So far, he has not resigned as several of his colleagues have asked for him to do. If does, he already selected Smitherman two years ago to select his replacement in the event he should step down.

Smitherman said it would be solely his decision to select someone to fulfill the rest of Pastor’s four-year term, which began in January 2018.

There will be no committees or lengthy, drawn-out processes, he vows.

“My job is to protect the institution. That’s I swore to. That’s what I was elected to. I plan to exercise that right.”

Smitherman says he thinks the bigger issue exposed now is fixing what he calls a “weakness” the city’s charter.

“I think we have a problem and I plan to work to fix the problem. I definitely think we need charter reform. Clearly, I don’t think anyone was thinking that members of council would be in the situation that they are in," he said.

Any changes to the city’s charter, or constitution, would require gathering petition signatures that would be enough to place the issue on a future ballot so voters can decide.

Dennard initially did not resign from council after her arrest in February on federal fraud and bribery charges.

She did the following month after a lawsuit was filed by attorney Curt Hartman on behalf of voters to try to force it and Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters and Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced they would seek her suspension from office if she didn’t.

Dennard and Pastor’s cases are not connected, federal authorities have said, but they do show a “culture of corruption” in Cincinnati and northern Ohio in Toledo.

Dennard is set to be sentenced Nov. 24.

Pastor’s charges are “done,” but their investigation continues, U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said during a news conference Tuesday.

“We have a way to go,” he said. “We still have some prosecutions to do.”

Smitherman said he is watching to see what federal authorities do next.

“I’m not confident that they are done. No one knows what’s really going on. No one knows what’s really going on, so I am not confident that this matter is resolved. I think that is the biggest issue. What don’t we know?

“You have to be curious about that at this point if you are an elected official at City Hall,” Smitherman said. “For me, it started with the culture of the Gang of Five. This is a culture that I have been hollering about since I got elected. When people say they put together a gang, we should believe them. What does a gang do? This is not surprising to me.”

The city - ultimately taxpayers - forked over $176,000 last year to settle a lawsuit and to pay outside legal fees after five members of Cincinnati City Council who referred to themselves as “Gang of Five” admitted to breaking Ohio’s Open Meetings Act.

The lawsuit, filed by an anti-tax activist, uncovered that they were privately deciding city business by secretly messaging each other via text and emails. The council members are Dennard, P.G. Sittenfeld, Greg Landsman, Wendell Young and Chris Seelbach.

City officials have provided four checks for $200 each written by four of the “Gang” members: Seelbach, Sittenfeld, Landsman and Young. The checks repay their shares of the $1,000 fine for violating the Open Meetings Act.

RELATED | No charges for Gang of Five but investigation continues | Judge: ‘Gang of Five’ city council members should resign | Council’s explosive secret text messages are out | Judge: Not enough evidence to hold Wendell Young in contempt for deleting texts in ‘Gang of Five’ case

“That is why I have been raising the alarm bells as the vice mayor of the city of Cincinnati," Smitherman said. “One of the things that I agree with from the FBI press conference is this is a culture and it’s a culture in both council members and developers.

"I think it’s unfair to paint all politicians with a broad brush. These are individuals who are making decisions. Not all people at City Hall are corrupt. We just have to wait and see what happens next. Who knows what twists are going to happen. What we do know is one of our colleagues is going to be sentenced on Nov. 24. That is a fact.”

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