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Calls begin for Wendell Young to step down

Published: Apr. 15, 2021 at 9:06 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 15, 2021 at 9:07 PM EDT
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Calls began almost immediately for Councilman Wendell Young to step down after his indictment Thursday morning.

Young, 75, a council member since 2010, was indicted by a Hamilton County grand jury on a felony charge of tampering with records in connection with an investigation into text messages he exchanged with four other council members in 2018.

“At some point between January 3, 2018, and October 16, 2018, Young knowingly and with the purpose to defraud, destroyed text messages that belonged to a government entity,” Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Hanley said in a news release.

“The grand jury has decided that probable cause exists that Councilman Young has committed a violation of the law, tampering with records. It is my intention of taking that charge into court and establishing he is guilty of that offense beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Young’s attorney, Scott Croswell, said he has reviewed the indictment and intends to “defend it vigorously.”

One of Young’s colleagues, Betsy Sundermann, was the first to call for his resignation.

“In the past year, we’ve called for the resignation of three indicted council members. Today moves that number up to four. Councilmember Young must resign immediately so we can focus on the real issues impacting Cincinnati,” Sundermann said in a tweet.

“I’m tired of having to write these statements - the people of our city deserve much better than this revolving door of corruption.”

Councilwoman Liz Keating said it was “another sad day for Cincinnati.”

“While Councilmember Young is entitled to his day in court, I hope he will step down to remove the distractions and mistrust at City Hall in order for Council to move forward with the important work we have in front of us,” she said.

Cincinnati City Councilman Steve Goodin was not as fast to call for Young’s resignation.

The former longtime Hamilton County assistant prosecutor said he wants to know more about the facts of the case first.

“This is a terrible day for the city. It’s awful whenever any elected official is accused of criminal conduct. It creates a massive distraction from the day to day work at city hall,” Goodin said. “That’s particularly bad now that we are dealing with the economic impact of COVID and how to spend our federal relief dollars.

“That said, Mr. Young is entitled to due process. This case is significantly different than the other three cases. Mr. Young has not been accused of abusing his office for personal and political gain. I would like, for one, to learn more information about this indictment before taking a position on his resignation.”

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman also isn’t calling for Young to step down.

“It saddens me to learn that another member of council has been indicted. I am praying for Council Member Young and his family,” Smitherman said. “I am heartened to learn that the investigation has been completed. It represents a new beginning for the city.

“As we move forward I encourage every citizen to participate in the upcoming May 4th primary and the November 2nd general election and choose candidates with the utmost wisdom.”

We are seeking comment from the other council members and a spokeswoman for Mayor John Cranley and will update this story when we hear back.

This is the fourth time in just over a year that a member of council is facing a felony charge in connection with his or her elected office.

Now-suspended councilmen P.G. Sittenfeld and Jeff Pastor and now-former councilwoman Tamaya Dennard were all charged in separate bribery cases, starting in February 2020 with Dennard’s arrest.

Sittenfeld and Pastor were arrested just over a week apart from each other in November.

Pastor and Dennard were indicted on federal charges including bribery for allegedly soliciting money in exchange for favorable development votes.

Sittenfeld 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 federal prison. Her sentence has been delayed over the coronavirus pandemic.

Jan Michele Kearney was appointed to Dennard’s seat last year.

Sundermann was appointed to former Councilwoman Amy Murray’s seat when Murray left in early 2020 to go to Washington D.C. to accept a job in then-President Donald Trump’s administration.

She was a Hamilton County prosecutor for 13 years and a Hamilton County Probate Court magistrate for four years before joining city council.

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.

Shortly after both Sittenfeld and Pastor were arrested, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said he would ask the Ohio Supreme Court to begin suspension proceedings against them.

“While allegations of public corruption are resolved in the courtroom, a suspension is the right course of action even as the appearance of corruption has no place in government,” Yost said after Sittenfeld’s indictment.

Both men agreed to take voluntary suspensions from council and continue to collect their annual salary and benefits.

Hamilton County Probate Court Judge Ralph “Ted” Winkler has appointed three temporary replacements on council so far now, starting with Sundermann.

It’s not clear yet if he will appoint a fourth person. It’s too soon to say if Young will step down, take a voluntary suspension like Sittenfeld and Pastor or fight suspension proceedings.

In Ohio, elected officials who are convicted of felonies are prohibited from holding public office, but there is no statewide or local rule forcing them out as soon as they are charged.

Suspension proceedings can begin if state charges are filed related to their office, but that process is not immediate.

Sundermann and her fellow council members Greg Landsman and Christopher Smitherman have all called for changes to the city charter that would prohibit council members from continuing to serve once they are charged with a felony crime.

Dennard initially did not resign from council after her arrest.

She did the following month after a lawsuit was filed by attorney Curt Hartman on behalf of voters to try to force it and Yost and Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters announced they would seek her suspension from office if she didn’t.

Now, Cincinnati voters can weigh in by deciding two amendments to the city charter on the upcoming May 4 ballot.

Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman introduced Issue 1, and Council Member Betsy Sundermann introduced Issue 2. Both members support both amendments.

Each amendment prevents a council member from changing their successor designee after they’ve been indicted on charges related to their job on council.

Issue 1 would require the city solicitor to instead appoint a special prosecutor to litigate the case against any indicted council member.

Issue 2 gives council the authority to suspend a member internally.

If a council member is charged with a state or federal felony related to their duties, it triggers a council hearing. This only happens if the charges are job-related.

It also requires ethics training for all council members within 60 days of taking office.

Ethics training now is voluntary and only offered at the start of every regular term.

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