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Ohio Attorney General asks Supreme Court to begin suspension proceedings against P.G. Sittenfeld

Updated: Nov. 23, 2020 at 10:29 AM EST
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said Monday he’s asked the Ohio Supreme Court to begin suspension proceedings against Democrat Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.

“While allegations of public corruption are resolved in the courtroom, a suspension is the right course of action even as the appearance of corruption has no place in government,” Yost wrote in a statement.

The state’s top attorney, who is a Republican, also explained why he has not pursued suspension for fellow Republican and former House Speaker Larry Householder.

He does not have that authority, only Ohio lawmakers do.

The 36-year-old 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.

But now Sittenfeld is the third member of the nine-person council arrested by the FBI and indicted on bribery, attempted extortion and other corruption-related charges this year for allegedly taking bribes for favorable votes on development deals.

Yost said Republican Councilman Jeff Pastor, 36, agreed to take a voluntary suspension on Friday, a few days after the attorney general announced that he asked the state’s top court to begin suspension proceedings against him.

Democrat Mayor John Cranley and other council members and local and state leaders, Democrats and Republicans alike, have called for both Sittenfeld and Pastor to resign.

RELATED | Time to clean house’: Cincinnati’s mayor calls for P.G. Sittenfeld to resign | Vice Mayor calls for ‘forensic audit’ of council votes on development deals | Jeff Pastor to take voluntary suspension from council amid federal charges | Former Cincinnati city councilwoman Tamaya Dennard apologizes in letter to judge

According to the six-count indictment, Sittenfeld accepted bribe money in 2018 and 2019 while promising to “deliver the votes” and perform other official action with respect to a development project before city council.

“It is alleged that Sittenfeld corruptly solicited and received payments to a PAC he controlled,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a news release

Specifically, in November and December 2018, Sittenfeld promised he could “deliver the votes” in city council to support a development project in exchange for four $5,000 contributions to his PAC, according to his indictment.

Federal officials have said it’s alleged Sittenfeld again corruptly accepted four $5,000 checks in September and October 2019.

In November 2018, according to the indictment, Sittenfeld indicated to undercover agents posing as investors that he would shepherd votes for the development project.

He allegedly presented voting data showing that he is politically popular throughout Cincinnati and said he is likely to be the next mayor. Sittenfeld said, “I can move more votes than any other single person…,” according to the indictment. He allegedly reiterated in December 2018, “don’t let these be my famous last words, but I can always get a vote to my left or a vote to my right.”

Over the next several months, federal authorities say Sittenfeld told the investors he was continuing to apply pressure and promised to apply additional pressure to public officials relating to their agreement involving the development project.

Sittenfeld is charged with two counts each of honest services wire fraud (up to 20 years in prison), bribery (up to 10 years), and attempted extortion by a government official (up to 20 years).`

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”

His attorney, 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 said Friday he planned to hold a news conference Monday but the event was canceled.

Shortly after, Yost tweeted that he would seek Sittenfeld’s suspension and about an hour later Sittenfeld tweeted out a video of himself repeating much of his previous statement on Friday, declaring his innocence and vowing to fight the charges.

He also said: “So many of you have asked about how you can help so that we can achieve justice and I’m incredibly grateful for that and we’ll get back to you soon.”

Over the weekend, Yost asked one of Sittenfeld’s colleagues on council, 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 defended Sittenfeld in a tweet Friday, saying he would be “exonerated” and criticized the case and DeVillers.

“The charges, brought by a Trump-appointed US Attorney, are incredibly weak,” he tweeted.

The federal judge assigned Sittenfeld’s case, Douglas R. Cole, also was nominated by President Donald Trump in May 2019 and confirmed by the Senate in December 2019, according to his biography on the court’s website.

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.

Trump nominated him to replace Benjamin Glassman.

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.

GF Default - RAW: Interview with U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman
GF Default - RAW: Interview with U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman

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.

U.S. Attorney David DeVillers and FBI Special-Agent-in-Charge Chris Hoffman announce new...
U.S. Attorney David DeVillers and FBI Special-Agent-in-Charge Chris Hoffman announce new details in an ongoing investigation into corruption that has led to the arrests of three Cincinnati City Councilmembers.(FOX19 NOW)

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 attention to Ohio’s Statehouse in Columbus.

He announced Republican Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and four others were arrested in connection with a $61 million federal public corruption conspiracy.

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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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