Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young pleads not guilty, first court appearance waived

Updated: Apr. 30, 2021 at 8:58 AM EDT
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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young entered a written plea of not guilty Thursday to a felony tampering with records charge ahead of his arraignment Friday.

He also received permission from a special prosecutor to waive his first court appearance at 8:30 a.m. Friday and will remain free on his own recognizance, court records show.

The case is scheduled to return to court for a scheduling conference May 12 before Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman, other court documents state.

Young, 75, a Democrat who has served on council since 2010. was indicted April 15 by a Hamilton County grand jury.

It was the fourth time in just over a year that a Cincinnati City Council was charged with committing a felony crime in connection with his or her elected office.

A special prosecutor, Patrick Hanley, spent 16 months investigating whether to criminally charge Young and four current and/or now-former Cincinnati City Council members, P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Tamaya Dennard and Greg Landsman, over text messages they exchanged secretly deciding public city business in 2018 discussing how to keep the city manager and potentially regain power from Mayor John Cranley.

Young wrote in one: “Amen! We’re the new gang of five. I pray we stay strong and continue to trust each other. We have the power to move this forward.”

The texts came out after an anti-tax activist sued for them in April 2018.

If convicted, Young 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 when he announced the charge earlier this month.

“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.”

Judge Ruehlman is familiar with Young’s case.

He handled the Gang of Five lawsuit proceedings and eventual settlement in March 2019.

The judge considered but decided two months later, in May 2019, there was not enough evidence to charge Young with contempt of court for deleting his text messages. Ruehlman had issued an order that all texts were to be preserved due to the lawsuit.

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

The special prosecutor, however, is charging Young on the basis of the act of simply destroying them, court records show.

Hanley recently told FOX19 NOW he planned to ask the Ohio Supreme Court to initiate suspension proceedings against Young.

But when we asked him Friday if he had filed the required motions with the court to start the process, Hanley said he is now not sure.

“I haven’t made an ultimate decision on whether to go forward,” Hanley responded

When asked why, he responded he had other work to do. Hanley is a part-time prosecutor who will eventually bill the city of Cincinnati $250 an hour for the case. He has said he will not submit a bill to the city until the case is over.

Young remain in office. He has not said he if plans to hang onto his council seat or step down and let his council designee select his successor (that’s Seelbach, city records show).

When Cincinnati Councilmen Jeff Pastor and 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.

Were Young to be 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 May primary ballot next week to give council members more immediate power to take action in these situations.

Meanwhile, an investigation by a 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 has said.

In 2019, State Auditor Keith 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.

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.”

The ethics commission has declined to elaborate or comment further since Young’s arrest.

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