‘Gang of Five’: Council committee seeks legal opinion whether to release more secret texts

‘Gang of Five’: Council committee seeks legal opinion whether to release more secret texts
Former Cincinnati City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard, Suspended Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld and current Council Members Chris Seelbach, Wendell Young and Greg Landsman make up the so-called "Gang of Five." They all admitted in a 2019 lawsuit settlement to violating Ohio’s Open Meetings Act by privately deciding public city business via text messages and emails.

CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Cincinnati City Council’s Law and Public Safety Committee agreed Wednesday to seek input from the city’s law department whether more than 2,000 text messages related to the “Gang of Five” scandal should be released.

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman has introduced a motion calling on the city of Cincinnati to release more of the private messages after three members of council were recently indicted on federal corruption charges.

His motion reads: “WE MOVE that the city administration release to the public the additional 2000 plus text messages associated with the ‘Gang of 5′ excluding any text messages related to personal matters.”

Smitherman says one or two staff members in the City Solicitor’s Office have access to the texts, which are from 2018: “These are new. These are things they have never read. These are text messages that have not been released before.”

The city cannot truly turn the page on corruption at City Hall unless these messages are released, he contends, adding that he is only seeking ones related to city business.

The three council members who were indicted are P.G. Sittenfeld, Jeff Pastor and Tamaya Dennard.

They all accused of selling their votes for money.

Sittenfeld and Pastor both have pleaded not guilty and are now suspended from council.

Dennard quit and ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud.

She was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she won’t report to prison until March 1.

Five members of council including Sittenfeld and Dennard became known as the “Gang of Five” after they were named in a 2018 lawsuit by an anti-tax activist.

The suit sought their private text messages and emails to prove they were privately conducting publicly city business.

The other members of the “Gang of Five” are Chris Seelbach, Wendell Young and Greg Landsman. They all remain on council.

The 2,000-plus additional text messages that Smitherman is now seeking were the focus of a June 2019 lawsuit filed by two anonymous Hamilton County Democrats seeking to keep them private.

The lawsuit came after the city received public records requests for the texts from FOX19 NOW and others. The suit was voluntarily dismissed last year by the plaintiffs’ attorney, federal court records show.

The additional 2000-plus text messages became an issue after thousands of other texts between the “Gang of Five” were released as part of the March 2019 settlement of a lawsuit filed by an anti-tax activist seeking the secret messages to prove the five council members that made up a council majority at that time were secretly deciding public city business.

Smitherman maintains the public is entitled to the messages because $176,000 in taxpayer money was shelled out to settle the “Gang of Five” lawsuit and to pay for outside legal fees.

“Why are these taxpayer-paid for messages not part of the public record?” he has said. “That to me is the heart of it. I don’t think you can look the taxpayers in the face who paid for these but tell them ‘you can’t read them’ and then say ‘we are trying to turn the page on corruption.’ You cannot turn the page on corruption without giving the public the chance to see the messages.”

MORE | Five Cincinnati City Council members may face criminal prosecution over text messages | Gang of Five: ‘Special master’ finishes review of council texts, prosecutors dig in | Judge: Not enough evidence to hold Wendell Young in contempt for deleting texts in ‘Gang of Five’ case

FOX19 NOW put a records request into the city, again, for the texts, and received the following response from Interim City Solicitor Andrew Garth:

“We will log the request and convey it to the City administration for a response in accordance with the requirements of Ohio public records laws.”

A special prosecutor, meanwhile, recently said he continues to investigate the “Gang of Five” and their texts and emails. The special prosecutor, Patrick Hanley, decided last year the case did not rise to the level of a misdemeanor charge of dereliction of duty, as the state auditor had recommended.

But Hanley insists his investigation remains ongoing, though he declines to discuss specifics.

And, a federal investigation also remains underway into what authorities have said is a “culture of corruption” in the city.

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