Sundermann, Landsman propose reforms after 2 council members accused of taking bribes

Updated: Nov. 16, 2020 at 11:10 AM EST
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Council members Betsy Sundermann and Greg Landsman held separate news conferences Monday to announce reforms at City Hall.

This comes after two Cincinnati council members, Tamaya Dennard and Jeff Pastor, were arrested this year - including Pastor just last week - and accused by federal authorities of taking bribes from developers in exchange for their votes.

Sundermann said Cincinnati does not have any rules regarding the removal of officials if an official is convicted of a crime.

“Cincinnati is quickly gaining a reputation as a corrupt city,” Sundermann said.

She is asking each member of council to join her in co-signing a charter amendment she and others have been working on since May. The amendment states:

  • The ability to remove a member of the council and preventing them from holding future office
  • The ability to suspend a member of council if charged
  • Paying restitution to the city for a crime committed against the city

About an hour later, Landsman spoke and announced reforms aimed at restoring trust in government and public service.

The reforms include:

  • A new Cincinnati Ethics Commission
  • Campaign finance reform - there would be more transparency with those who do business with the city and to those who do business with the city have to disclose contributions within 48 hours.
  • A new charter amendment to deal with campaign finance reforms and the ability to recommend someone be suspended or removed from office by a vote from the council.
  • A designated chief ethics and good government officer
  • Ongoing training on the appropriate use of public funds, equipment and time that’s publicly funded, public records laws, open meetings laws, and campaign finance laws.

“We through legislation would be asking the administration to work with the Ohio Ethics Commission to establish a similar local commission to ensure local oversight and transparency. This commission would be supported by the chief ethics and good government officer, which will be designated by the administration," Landsman said. "We hope that this commission expect that it will go beyond what the Ohio Ethics Commission requires in terms of disclosure, in terms of training, in terms of oversight and accountability. It would supplement, it would build off of, not supersede in any way the state’s ethics commission. The commissioners would be incredibly qualified, mostly lawyers, if not all lawyers and again would be similar to the setup in Columbus, though we do believe it needs to go further.”

Landsman and Sundermann’s charter amendments are different, but Landsman says that he hopes to “all work together and put one charter amendment before voters.”

He reiterated that the reforms are not just about one issue and they are really to restore public trust.

“I mean you’re seeing this erosion in public trust across the board at every level of government and I do believe it is incumbent on all of us to work together, to do everything we can to restore that public trust, to give people a government that’s highly effective, that is fair, and one that they can trust always,” Landsman said.

The charter amendment proposals will be discussed in front of the education, innovation and growth committee of city council Tuesday afternoon.

Landsman said in a statement sent out by his staff Sunday:

“Larry Householder’s $60 million corruption scheme in Columbus will cost taxpayers a $1 billion if we don’t succeed in court. There is a United States Senator trying to keep her seat in Georgia despite indications of insider trader. Her husband owns the stock exchange and the couple sold and bought millions in stocks after a classified briefing. Plus, what has happened here. As such, these reforms are aimed at restoring public trust not just in government but also the idea and potential of public service. While I hope Columbus and Washington follow, I’m in a position to help lead here, which is what I’m doing.”

On Friday, Cincinnati Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman called for changes to the city’s charter that would prohibit council members from continuing to serve as soon as they are charged with a felony crime.

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.

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.

A federal indictment unsealed last 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 are related to the Convention Place Mall on Elm Street Downtown.

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.

So far, Pastor has not resigned as several of his colleagues have asked for him to do, including Councilmember Sundermann.

If Pastor does step aside, he already selected Smitherman two years ago to select his replacement.

Smitherman told FOX19 NOW on Friday 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 what 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” in 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.

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 last week.

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

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