CINCINNATI (FOX19) - The special prosecutor investigating whether to criminally prosecute some current and former Cincinnati City Council members over their text messages indicated Monday new developments could be imminent.
“Things are going well and I am going to wrap this up,” Patrick Hanley told FOX19 NOW when we asked him for an update on the case.
He declined to elaborate further and that includes whether he has a grand jury going to hear evidence in the case or plans to soon, if he plans to try to indict anyone and, if so, on what charge or charges.
Few details have been released so far about what, if anything, is happening because proceedings have been secret since Hanley was appointed to investigate in late 2019.
In September 2020, Hanley informed Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters he wouldn’t prosecute Cincinnati City Council’s so-called “Gang of Five” on a misdemeanor charge of dereliction of duty that Ohio Auditor Keith Faber recommended over the texting scandal.
A Hamilton County judge appointed Hanley to handle the case after Faber’s recommendation to avoid conflicts of interest with city and county prosecutors.
“After considering this particular matter at length,” Hanley wrote Deters in September, “I have concluded that such a criminal charge against the five council members, P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Greg Landsman, Tamaya Dennard and Wendell Young, is not warranted and therefore decline prosecution.”
But, he wrote, “The investigation is ongoing.”
We have repeatedly checked on the status of Hanley’s investigation in light of the arrests last year of three Cincinnati City Council members: Democrats Sittenfeld and Dennard, who were part of the “Gang of Five,” and Republican Jeff Pastor, who was not a party to the texting scandal.
Pastor and Dennard were indicted on federal charges including bribery for allegedly soliciting money in exchange for favorable development votes.
Sittenfeld also was indicted on similar charges with federal prosecutors accusing him of taking PAC contributions in exchange for favorable votes.
Dennard resigned in March, pleaded guilty to one count of honest services wire fraud and was sentenced late last year to 18 months in a federal prison. Her sentence has been delayed until March over the coronavirus pandemic.
Federal officials, who launched an investigation in 2018, announced late last year there is a “culture of corruption” in the city.
Sittenfeld and Pastor have pleaded not guilty and are free on their own recognizance.
Both are now suspended from council, and a Hamilton County judge has appointed temporary replacements.
Sittenfeld’s legal team has asked a federal judge to throw out all charges against him.
A decision is expected soon.
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Last year, Hanley told FOX19 NOW the coronavirus pandemic delayed his investigation into the Gang of Five.
He also has told FOX19 NOW his work is separate from the federal investigation.
When we asked Hanley more recently what he would say to those who may think nothing will come from his probe, he responded: “We’ll see. We’ll see.”
This is the second time a grand jury has been convened to look into the “Gang of Five."
The five council members 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 lawsuit described the Democrats as “a cabal of five rogue members” of council holding illegal, secret meetings via email and text messages to discuss Mayor John Cranley asking the then-City Manager Harry Black to resign in violation of Ohio’s Sunshine Law and the city charter.
The judge handling the lawsuit ordered the five council members to retain all texts and emails because the communications were considered evidence in the case.
Then, in late November 2018, Deters convened a grand jury and began investigating after he said he discovered in a court filing related to the lawsuit that Young purposely deleted his text messages and Dennard’s phone was damaged by water at a pool.
The council members turned over their cell phones, which were cloned, and then a special master was brought in to review all the thousands of text messages on their phones for the prosecutor’s office.
The civil lawsuit was settled in March 2019 and thousands of the text messages have been released and now the city may release an additional 2,000-plus that are still being retained.
The settlement cost the city $176,000 in total including $90,000 to the law firm that launched the civil suit.
Four of the five “Gang” members: Seelbach, Sittenfeld, Landsman and Young, acted on their own in 2019 to repay their $200 share of a $1,000 fine for violating the Open Meetings Act, city records show.
MORE: Judge: ‘Gang of Five’ city council members should resign | Gang of Five: Council’s secret texts are out - and they’re explosive | Council texts: Former mayor strategized with ‘Gang of Five’ | 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
Ultimately, Deters turned the situation over to a county judge to handle, saying civil court was the more appropriate place than criminal court.
Young’s lawyer, Scott Croswell, said his client has always maintained he deleted them well before the judge’s order to retain them, though in court in May 2019 he said Young could not recall exactly when that was.
The judge concluded there was not enough evidence from the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office to hold Young in contempt of court because it could not be determined if Young deleted his text messages before or after the judge’s order.
Young was not charged with anything, but the judge had considered it.
Tom Hoges, an attorney for Seelbach, said Monday he’s heard nothing new about the special prosecution.
“I don’t have any information. We don’t have any new information to indicate that this is a criminal act in any way. They participated fully in a civil case before this became an issue. Generally, if you are concerned about criminal liability, you do not say a word in a civil action. They participated fully in the civil action, which strongly indicates there is no criminal issue at play.”