Special prosecutor to seek suspension of Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young after felony indictment

Special prosecutor asking Ohio Supreme Court to suspend Wendell Young from city council

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - A special prosecutor tells FOX19 NOW he plans to ask the Ohio Supreme Court to initiate suspension proceedings against Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young following his felony indictment.

“I think so. You have an elected official who committed a felony. It’s just appropriate he be suspended,” Patrick Hanley said Wednesday morning.

Hanley said he plans to file motions with the Ohio Supreme Court either this week or next week for sure to begin that process.

Under state law, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor would then appoint a panel of judges to review evidence in the case and decide whether to suspend Young.

So far, Young has not announced if he plans to try to hang onto his council seat or step down and let his council designee select his successor (Councilman Chris Seelbach).

We reached out to Young’s attorney about the issue earlier this week and did not hear back.

We are checking again today and will update this story if we hear back.

When Cincinnati Councilmen Jeff Pastor and P.G. Sittenfeld were each indicted recently in separate cases on federal charges, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced he would ask the state’s top court to initiate suspension proceedings on them.

Shortly after, both men agreed to voluntary suspensions that allow them to continue to collect their annual council salaries and benefits.

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, Steve Goodin and Liz Keating.

Cincinnati voters can approve or reject two city charter amendments on the upcoming May primary ballot to give council members more immediate power to take action in these situations.

“Mr. Young should resign or be suspended from participating in voting on the dispursement of $290M in federal money and $400M in city money while he is under indictment,” Councilwoman Betsy Sundermann said Wednesday when we reached her for comment.

“If Issue 2 passes next month, we will have an internal mechanism to suspend councilmembers in the future and won’t have to depend on a special prosecutor.”

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 earlier this week.

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.

Young’s indictment last week is the fourth time in just over a year that a Cincinnati City Council was charged with a crime committed in connection with his or her 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,” Hanley wrote 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 has said he will defend Young “vigorously.”

The special prosecutor spent 16 months investigating whether to criminally charge Young and four current and/or now-former Cincinnati City Council members, Sittenfeld, Seelbach, Tamaya Dennard 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.

In late 2018, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters investigated the destruction of texts, issuing subpoenas for the five council members phones.

A few months later, he announced 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.

On Wednesday, Young’s fellow councilman, Steve Goodin, recalled that case as he continued to maintain Young’s indictment is different than the other three council members charged with felonies in the past 14 months.

“Wendell Young has not been accused of selling votes. Judge Ruehlman did not find him in contempt of court, and that was a lesser standard. I say we we take a wait-and-see approach in this matter.”

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.

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 has declined to elaborate or comment further.

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