Gang of Five special prosecutor: ‘It’s coming to a close’

Updated: Apr. 2, 2021 at 9:24 AM EDT
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - The special prosecutor investigating whether to criminally charge five current and former Cincinnati City Council members over their text messages told FOX19 Friday “It’s coming to a close.”

Asked if he could elaborate at all, Patrick Hanley responded “No” and declined further comment.

In February, Hanley told us “Things are going well and I am going to wrap this up.”

He has repeatedly declined to elaborate on his investigation or to say if 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 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.

RELATED: P.G. Sittenfeld promised votes for money in ‘political slush fund,’ feds say | P.G. Sittenfeld: ‘This is not an organized crime case involving cartels, gangs or the mob’ | Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Pastor arrested on federal bribery charges, feds say | There is more to this story:’ Pastor’s attorney raises questions on motives, evidence | Former Cincinnati city councilwoman Tamaya Dennard apologizes in letter to judge | Tamaya Dennard sentenced in Cincinnati City Council corruption case

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.

PREVIOUS: ‘Amen! We’re the new Gang of Five: Secret council text messages released ahead of hearing | Council texts: Harry Black needs counseling, mayor ‘flat out lied’

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 could not be reached for comment Friday morning.

He has missed multiple council and committee meetings since March 17, city records released Friday show.

The voice mail at his office at City Hall is full and not accepting new messages.

Croswell told FOX19 NOW Friday said he had no information about Hanley’s investigation.

“I don’t know anything about it,” he said.

Former Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Fanon Rucker said Friday he is Wendell Young’s former attorney.

Fanon said he represented Young “from last summer until not too recently.”

“I no longer represent him. I am aware of rumors of impending legal action, stuff like that, but I don’t have any comment or anything like that,” he said.

Rucker said he specifically got involved in the special investigation Hanley has been doing “regarding the text messages and whistleblower stuff that was going on.”

“I got involved last summer along with the lawyers for council members Landsman and Sittenfeld and Dennard and Seelbach. I was one of the attorneys working on that issue.”

Fanon says the attorneys for the five council members didn’t believe the case warranted criminal charges, pointing out Hanley declined to prosecute on Faber’s recommendation of dereliction of duty.

Reminded that Hanley has maintained the investigation remained ongoing and now Hanley is now saying the case is “coming to a close,” Fanon responded:

“It’s been coming to a close for a year. I don’t quite understand the excessive amount of taxpayer monies being used to investigate, to pursue whatever is going on here. We’re not talking about any corruption, I don’t think.

“I don’t think we’re talking about anything that hasn’t been discussed in an open court two years ago. I don’t understand. It seems like a huge waste of money. I would be interested to see what that invoice is going to look like that the taxpayers are going to be paying.”

Rucker said he was unaware Young has missed council and city committee meetings since March 17 and was not sure why.

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