CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost is asking Cincinnati Councilman Chris Seelbach to apologize for publicly criticizing the region’s top federal prosecutor, David DeVillers, amid a federal investigation into what authorities say is a “culture of corruption” undermining the public’s trust in City Hall.
“Councilman Seelbach knows not whereof he speaks (when) he attacks the prosecutor here,” Yost tweeted Friday night.
Seelbach took to Twitter on Friday to defend his friend, P.G. Sittenfeld, and insist he would be “exonerated.”
Until this week, Sittenfeld was considered by many to be the front-runner in Cincinnati’s 2021 mayor’s race with more than $700,000 amassed in his campaign war chest.
Now, the 36-year-old Democrat is the third member of the nine-person council arrested by the FBI and indicted on bribery, attempted extortion and other corruption-related charges for allegedly taking bribes for favorable votes on development deals.
Democrat Mayor John Cranley and other council members and local and state leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, have called for Sittenfeld to resign.
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Sittenfeld is accused of taking $40,000 in bribes that went into a political action committee (PAC) that he secretly controlled, prosecutors wrote in his indictment.
If convicted on all charges, the East Walnut Hills married father of a young son faces a maximum of 50 years in prison.
Sittenfeld has pleaded not guilty and is free on his recognizance.
“I am innocent,” he said in a statement tweeted out Friday, adding that “The allegations against me are simply not true.”
Sittenfeld also declared he would fight the charges: “I do not give up and will not give up. I intend to keep fighting - fighting these false allegations, fighting as your elected Council Member and fighting for our city and its future”
Shortly after, Seelbach, a Democrat, came to his defense and criticized the lead federal prosecutor for the U.S. Southern District of Ohio.
“The charges, brought by a Trump appointed US Attorney, are incredibly weak,” he tweeted.
The federal judge assigned Sittenfeld’s case, Douglas R. Cole, was nominated for the position in May 2019 by President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate in December 2019, according to his biography on the court’s website.
Yost, a Republican, announced earlier this week he asked the Ohio Supreme Court to begin suspension proceedings against one of Sittenfeld’s colleagues on council also facing federal charges, Republican Jeff Pastor.
Pastor is now going to take a voluntary suspension, a source tells FOX19 NOW.
Yost so far has not asked the state’s high court to also begin suspension proceedings for Sittenfeld.
But with him showing no signs of resigning, at least in his statement of innocence Friday, that could happen soon.
One of Sittenfeld’s attorneys withdrew from his case Friday, Diane Menashe of Columbus.
She indicated in court records their professional relationship had become “irreparable.”
“He’s no longer my client,” she responded when we contacted her.
Another attorney for Sittenfeld, Charles M. Rittgers put out a lengthy statement defending him Friday afternoon.
Rittgers’ statement accuses federal authorities of promoting “falsehoods.”
“It is unjust for the government to use falsehoods to undercut PG’s presumption of innocence,” the statement reads.
“It unlawfully tarnishes his reputation by misleading the public about how a lawful leadership PAC operates under the law and how the public record shows he followed the law regarding his PAC.”
Sittenfeld’s attorney plans to hold a news conference Monday. The time and location will be announced Monday morning once an outdoor area is secured, according to the statement.
DeVillers was appointed last year by the U.S. Senate to helm the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio, overseeing 48 counties.
He nominated by President Donald Trump to replace Benjamin Glassman.
DeVillers and Glassman are longtime colleagues and friends, and worked together for years at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Glassman ensured a smooth leadership transition and traveled to Columbus for DeVillers swearing-in.
The current federal investigation into what DeVillers and other federal officials continue to refer to as a “culture of corruption” in Cincinnati began in April 2018, when Glassman was the U.S. Attorney, federal court records show.
Glassman was appointed during Democrat Barack Obama’s administration and was with the U.S. Attorney’s Office overall since 2005 before he resigned last year.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office was extremely busy under Glassman’s tenure, vigorously prosecuting the country’s first-ever indictment and extradition of an alleged Chinese intelligence officer for attempted economic espionage targeting companies such as GE Aviation.
They also prosecuted for racketeering Ohio clique MS-13 that resulted in a life sentence for its leader.
The office then produced one of only two criminal cases in the nation against an opioid wholesaler and its executives and the first-ever federal carfentanil-trafficking case.
DeVillers has a reputation as well for unflinching prosecutions, working in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for more than 18 years and tackling violent federal offenses with an emphasis on organized crime, murder and other crimes.
DeVillers is particularly known for cracking down on gangs by prosecuting them in groups for their involvement in larger criminal enterprises. He led prosecutions against members of the Short North Posse, T&A Crips, MS-13 and other gangs.
Earlier this year, DeVillers and other federal authorities turned their attentions to a case that has rocked Ohio’s Statehouse.
He announced Republican Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four others were arrested in connection with a $61 million federal public corruption conspiracy.
The racketeering and bribery investigation involves a nuclear plant bailout that impacts utility bills statewide and what DeVillers has said is “likely the largest money laundering scheme ever perpetrated against the people of the state of Ohio.”
That investigation remains ongoing and more arrests expected with investigators urging anyone with any information to contact the FBI’s tip line at 614-849-1777.
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