Ohio Auditor: Wendell Young indictment ‘step toward holding elected officials accountable’

Cincinnati City Council member Wendell Young (FOX19 NOW)
Cincinnati City Council member Wendell Young (FOX19 NOW)
Updated: Apr. 19, 2021 at 12:01 PM EDT
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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Ohio Auditor Keith Faber said Monday the indictment of Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young “is a step toward holding elected officials accountable.”

“Ohioans deserve transparency in their governments and I’m proud of the experienced law enforcement arm of our office, the Special Investigative Unit, who brought this crime to light,” Faber said in his first remarks since Young was indicted.

Meanwhile, an investigation by Faber’s Special Investigative Unit within the state auditor’s office remains ongoing and will not be available until it’s closed, a spokeswoman for the office said Monday.

In 2019, Faber told FOX19 NOW his office was leaning toward conducting a special audit to determine if public money was misspent and must be repaid.

That special audit remains ongoing, according to Allie Dumski, spokeswoman for the auditor’s office.

And now, for the fourth time in just over a year, a member of Cincinnati City Council was charged with a crime committed in connection with his elected office.

Young, a councilman since 2010, was indicted Thursday by a Hamilton County grand jury on a felony charge of tampering with records, court records show.

If convicted, Young, 75, of North Avondale, faces a maximum punishment of three years in prison.

“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 announced Thursday.

“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 has said he will defend Young “vigorously.”

We reached out to Croswell in light of the state auditor’s comments. We also asked Croswell if Young intends to try to hang onto his council seat or step down and allow his council designee, Chris Seelbach, a fellow Democrat, to select his successor.

We did not hear back.

Under state law, the county , or in this case special prosecutor or the state attorney general can ask the Ohio Supreme Court to begin suspension proceedings an elected official in the event of an arrest.

Hanley has not indicated if he would make that request. He said he plans to check on it Tuesday.

A spokeswoman for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office said Friday that since Hanley was indicted in county common pleas court, the county prosecutor (or in this case special prosecutor) would be responsible for initiating the suspension proceedings under state law.

If Young is suspended from council pending the outcome of his criminal case, Hamilton County Probate Court Judge Ted Winkler, a Republican, would select Young’s replacement.

Winkler has appointed two Republicans to fill the last two open seats, of Jeff Pastor, a Republican, and P.G. Sittenfeld, a Democrat, following their arrests on federal corruption-related charges.

Hanley has been investigating whether to criminally charge Young and four current and/or now-former Cincinnati City Council members, Tamaya Dennard, P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach and Greg Landsman, over text messages they exchanged secretly deciding public city business in 2018.

The texts were the focus of a 2018 lawsuit filed by an anti-tax activist seeking their text messages and emails.

The lawsuit describes the Democrats as a “cabal of five rogue members” of council holding illegal, secret meetings via text and email to discuss Mayor John Cranley asking then-City Manager Harry Black to resign in violation of the state’s Sunshine law and Cincinnati’s city charter.

The city contends texts and emails sent from council members’ personal phones are not public records.

Just under a year later, in early 2019, a $101,000 lawsuit settlement is arranged in which the city admits council members violated Ohio’s Open Meetings Act twice and Young deleted his texts.

The settlement includes $1,000 for two Open Meeting Act violations and $10,000 for Young destroying the texts.

Deters investigates the destruction of texts, issuing subpoenas for the five council members phones. A few months later, he announces civil court is more appropriate to handle the issue and all the texts are being turned over to Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman.

The judge determined there was not enough evidence to hold Young in contempt of court for destroying the text messages on his phone that were part of the lawsuit.

Young’s lawyer said in court in May 2019 his client has always maintained he deleted them well before the order, though he said Young could not recall exactly when that was.

In late 2019, Faber made a recommendation to the City Solicitor’s Office that the five council member face the misdemeanor criminal charge of dereliction of duty in connection with the texting scandal.

Hanley, a former federal prosecutor, was appointed to the case to avoid conflicts with city and county prosecutors.

Hanley ultimately opted not to prosecute all five council members on the dereliction of duty charge - but he kept investigating, according to a letter he wrote Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters in September 2020.

“Our Special Investigations Unit investigated the case and made recommendations to the prosecutor. At that point it becomes the job of the prosecutor to determine what course of action to pursue,” said Allie Dumski, spokeswoman for the State Auditor’s Office.

“We appreciate the efforts of the special prosecutor and respect the decision that has been made.”

Ohio Ethics Commission Executive Director Paul Nick told FOX19 NOW in December 2019 they have been “communicating with the auditor’s office on matters within our authority.”

He declined to elaborate or comment further.

On Monday, his office continued that stance when we checked on the status of this:

“Under state law, the Ohio Ethics Commission’s investigations are confidential. While the Commission may share information with other law enforcement authorities, Ohio Revised Code 102.07 deems any complaints, charges, or investigations handled by the Ohio Ethics Commission private and confidential. Therefore, the Ethics Commission cannot comment on allegations or ongoing investigations.”

Gang of Five text messages (Photo: FOX19 NOW/Jennifer Edwards Baker)
Gang of Five text messages (Photo: FOX19 NOW/Jennifer Edwards Baker)

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