P.G. Sittenfeld: Feds misstated facts, made ‘unfairly prejudicial statements’

P.G. Sittenfeld: Feds misstated facts, made ‘unfairly prejudicial statements’

CINCINNATI (FOX19) - The legal team for suspended Cincinnati City Councilman P.G Sittenfeld is continuing its vigorous legal challenge to his federal corruption charges.

In court records filed Wednesday, Sittenfeld’s lawyers accuse federal authorities of misstating facts and the law in his indictment.

The documents also allege U.S. Attorney David DeVillers and FBI Special Agent in Charge Chris Hoffman made “unfairly prejudicial public statements” when they held a joint news conference to announce his charges on Nov. 19, 2020.

“The motion argues that Mr. Sittenfeld has the right to present a complete defense. By cherry-picking excerpts from longer conversations, the government has misconstrued essential facts and limited access to evidence, which not only impacts the jury pool and potential defense witnesses but also compromises the integrity of our criminal justice system,” reads a news release Wednesday from Sittenfeld’s legal team.

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.
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. (Source: FOX19 NOW)

In a 20-page motion, Sittenfeld said he wants full audio recordings of his conversations with undercover agents released.

Last month, Sittenfeld asked a judge to throw out all the federal corruption charges against him.

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 in November, Sittenfeld became third member of the nine-person council to be arrested 2020 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.

He is currently suspended from council, along with Republican Councilman Jeff Pastor, 37, who was indicted on similar charges just days earlier.

Pastor has been temporarily replaced by fellow Republican Steve Goodin.

Another Republican, Liz Keating, has been appointed to Sittenfeld’s seat.

A third council member, Democrat Tamaya Dennard, 41, resigned from council in March 2020 after she was arrested the previous month.

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

FOX19 NOW sought comment from DeVillers, Hoffman and representatives for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio as well as the FBI.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said they would respond in a court filing.

An FBI spokesman said they would defer to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Sittenfeld’s legal team alleges the government incorrectly stated on multiple occasions Sittenfeld’s Progress and Growth PAC was a “secret,” “against federal law,” and a “slush fund.”

“Facts demonstrate that Mr. Sittenfeld’s nonconnected Progress and Growth PAC was publicly and readily available to the government on the FEC web site starting on February 5, 2018, well before the government initiated its undercover investigation of Mr. Sittenfeld,” reads the news release from Sittenfeld’s legal team Wednesday.

By viewing the PAC’s publicly reported expenditures and the FEC Campaign Guide for Nonconnected Committees, the government would be aware of the facts about Mr. Sittenfeld’s PAC and how operated it lawfully before it indicted him, his motion reads.

“The FEC web site shows Mr. Sittenfeld was allowed by law to control his PAC, its expenditures were all authorized by law and no funds went to him personally, and contributions from the undercover agents were timely reported publicly as required by law,” reads the news release from Sittenfeld’s legal team. “Nothing was ‘hidden.’”

The motion also contains exculpatory quotes from the audio recordings “the government omitted in the indictment and press conference, using only edited partial quotes to conveniently make their case.”

Sittenfeld’s legal team cites in court records:

  • Paragraph 29 of the indictment states: “Sittenfeld stated that he would give a nudge on the City side and the Port side to ‘make haste on a development agreement.” The full quote is that Mr. Sittenfeld said, “On the City side and frankly on the Port side, I can give a nudge and say, now that this partnership’s in place, let’s make haste on a development agreement, which by the way is in the City’s best interest, too.” The part of the sentence the government did not include in the Indictment runs contrary to the government’s narrative. It shows why Mr. Sittenfeld supports the development of Project 1 when Mr. Sittenfeld explicitly stated that the development is in the best interest of his constituents.
  • Paragraph 20 of the indictment indicates that Sittenfeld met with undercover agents (UCE-1 and UCE-2) so he could accept campaign donations. It reads: “Sittenfeld went on to state, ‘It’s gotta happen, I mean, I’ve already, in the conversation I’ve already had with my colleagues…”’ The full quote in the recording is “It’s gotta happen. I mean, I’ve already, in the conversations I’ve already had with my colleagues, that parcel and what it means for, you know, broader tourism, that can’t be what it has been historically, if we’re going to energize that part of downtown.” Instead of including the exculpatory portion or the full sentence, the government entered an ellipsis and removed the part of the sentence that did not fit its narrative. The end of Mr. Sittenfeld’s sentence explains the true reason why Mr. Sittenfeld, the Mayor, and the rest of council were supportive of Project 1, which is the opposite of the government’s accusations in this case.
  • The government also claims that Mr. Sittenfeld accepted a campaign donation to make Project 1 “veto proof” so that Public Official A could not veto Project 1. The obvious implication of this accusation is that Public Official A would be inclined to veto Project 1. Paragraph 15 of the indictment reads, “UCE-1 stated that their interest is making Project 1 “veto proof”; Mr. Sittenfeld suggested that he can influence votes better than anyone. Mr. Sittenfeld stated, “...I can move more votes than any single other person, including [Public Official A].” The government ignores Mr. Sittenfeld’s explicit statements that Public Official A would naturally support Project 1 without urging. In the same audio recording and following the government’s selected quote about needing to “veto proof” Project 1, Mr. Sittenfeld stated about Public Official A, “he actually genuinely likes development. So, like, if this project is what it is teed up to be, does [Public Official A] want to be the voice after, after, 6 years of rah-rah, we gotta, like, keep, you know, keep the investment going? Even if he, you know, has some beef with [CW] or whatever, like, I, I don’t think he’s going to stand in the way of a good deal.” This shows that Mr. Sittenfeld explicitly told the undercover agents that there was no need to worry about veto proofing Project 1 because it was good for the City and Public Official A would not veto it. Mr. Sittenfeld is clear in the recordings that Public Official A should not be a concern. •

Sittenfeld’s motion goes on to state that in the press conference and indictment, the government also ignored his stated reasons for agreeing to discuss bonding and zoning requirements for sports gambling facilities within the city should Ohio ever legalize it and “inserts its own narration claiming that the reason Mr. Sittenfeld was willing to discuss bonding and zoning was in exchange for a promised campaign donation.”

The full audio recordings tell a different story, according to Sittenfeld’s legal team.

“Mr. Sittenfeld and the undercover agents discuss the impact gambling facilities can have on a community if they are numerous and disreputable,” the news release reads.

“Mr. Sittenfeld agrees with the undercover agents that his constituents would not want a gambling facility on every street corner and in every gas station and says, “And by the way, I’m not convinced the public at large wants that version of things anyway.”

When asked if he would be willing to consider zoning and bonding for gambling facilities, he specifically says, according to the news release, “The great part of it, though, is honestly, the public wants that, too.” (Emphasis added). Mr. Sittenfeld says, “my constituents” do not want gambling facilities “on every corner.” In Mr. DeVillers’ press conference and the Indictment, these quotes and Mr. Sittenfeld’s explicitly stated intent are unfairly omitted.”

Sittenfeld’s motion last month to have federal charges against him dismissed 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 also 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.”

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.

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