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P.G. Sittenfeld asks judge to throw out federal corruption charges

Published: Dec. 23, 2020 at 11:43 AM EST
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Suspended Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld is asking a judge to throw out all the federal corruption charges against him.

His lawyer filed a motion to dismiss the case Wednesday morning in U.S. District Court in downtown Cincinnati.

The 36-year-old Democrat 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 last month, Sittenfeld became third member of the nine-person council arrested this year by the FBI and indicted on bribery, attempted extortion and other corruption-related charges for allegedly taking bribes for favorable votes on development deals.

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).`

He has pleaded not guilty, is free on his recognizance and has repeatedly declared his innocence.

The motion to dismiss continues that stance and even says the indictment itself proves he is innocent: It “alleges nothing more than that Mr. Sittenfeld engaged in the kind of routine conduct of elected officials.”

The 20-page filing argues that the government failed to charge a crime.

The motion to dismiss stresses:

  • “The factual allegations show that Mr. Sittenfeld did not engage in any quid pro quo agreement—he did not promise to exchange official actions for campaign contributions or understand that he was expected to alter his official conduct.”
  • “To the contrary,” according to the facts alleged in the indictment, “Mr. Sittenfeld affirmed his widely known, longstanding pro-development positions in the same conversations where undercover agents, posing as investors, offered or provided contributions to his lawful, federally regulated political action committee in an attempted sting.”
  • “His alleged conduct is not a crime; it is a core feature of our democratic system.”
  • “Mr. Sittenfeld rejected the agents’ entreaties to link the contributions to his official conduct. Instead, Mr. Sittenfeld pointed to his record of voting for ‘every single development deal that’s ever been put in front of me.’”
  • The indictment fails as a matter of law, even though it is based on “cherry-picked excerpts from longer conversations with Mr. Sittenfeld that, taken as a whole, clearly establish that Mr. Sittenfeld is innocent of the charges against him.”
  • “This is not a case about personal gain—the government does not allege that money went into Mr. Sittenfeld’s pockets.”
  • ‘“Nor does the government allege that his PAC received contributions that exceeded the federal limits, that he spent the contributions unlawfully, or that he failed to disclose the contributions publicly as required by law. Rather, the indictment alleges nothing more than that Mr. Sittenfeld engaged in the kind of routine conduct of elected officials in cities, counties, and states across the nation.”

We reached out to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio for comment.

U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said they will respond to Sittenfeld’s motion with a motion of their own next week.

FOX19 NOW is working to obtain comment from the Cincinnati office of the FBI and will update this story once we hear back.

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 last month the day of his arrest.

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. Federal officials say he 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 also have said 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.

His attorney has accused federal authorities of promoting “falsehoods.”

“It is unjust for the government to use falsehoods to undercut PG’s presumption of innocence,” his attorney recently said in a statement.

“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.”

Republican Councilman Jeff Pastor, 37, was arrested just days before Sittenfeld.

He also recently agreed to take a voluntary suspension and has been temporarily replaced by fellow Republican Steve Goodin.

Republican Liz Keating was appointed last week to Sittenfeld’s seat.

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

Tamaya Dennard resigned from council in March after she was arrested in February.

She pleaded guilty to a wire fraud charge and recently received a sentence of 18 months in prison.

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

David Niven, a political science professor for the University of Cincinnati, noted the case against Sittenfeld differs in the fact that Dennard and Pastor were accused of using the money they allegedly took in bribes for their own personal finances.

Sittenfeld is accused of using his bribe money for his PAC.

“Well, it’s interesting to think about, in the case of the allegations against Councilmember Pastor and the plea agreement with Councilmember Dennard, they had their hand out for money that they were going to stick in their own pocket,” Niven said.

“In this case, the allegation against council member Sittenfeld is he had this handout for money that he wanted to put in a campaign war chest, he didn’t want to buy things. You don’t want to go on vacations. He wasn’t trying to enrich himself. He was trying to make himself powerful.

“And there’s a real question about which is worse.

“On the one hand, taking money for yourself seems kind of tawdry, kind of, you know, kind of seedy, and, you know, common. On the other hand, you know, taking money to advance a campaign is really more of a threat to democracy, because this is about taking money and exchanging, you know, your services, in return for helping to manipulate voters, because you’re going to use that money to try and convince voters of something, you know that that may not be perfectly true.”

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