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Special prosecutor asks Ohio Supreme Court to suspend Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young

Published: May. 12, 2021 at 5:15 PM EDT
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - A special prosecutor tells FOX19 NOW he has asked the Ohio Supreme Court to initiate suspension proceedings against Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young following his felony indictment.

“You have an elected official who committed a felony. It’s just appropriate he be suspended,” Patrick Hanley told FOX19 NOW last month when he first told us he planned to seek the suspension.

Hanley said he filed the motions with the Ohio Supreme Court on Monday.

Under state law, the Ohio Supreme Court has to give Young 14 days to decide what to do, Hanley said. That would be whether to accept a voluntary suspension while the criminal case plays out in the court system or fight it.

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).

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

He has pleaded not guilty to a felony charge of tampering with records and remains free on his own recognizance.

The Republican members of council have called for him to step down.

Young’s attorney, Scott Croswell has said he will defend Young “vigorously.”

He said Wednesday they are reviewing the special prosecutor’s filings with the Ohio Supreme Court as well as the city charter changes that just passed.

Those will allow council to take more control over removing council members who are charged with crimes.

Croswell said Wednesday Young is still serving on council and attending meetings: “He’s hanging in there.”

A scheduling hearing was held in the case Wednesday. Next, a pretrial hearing will be held June 22 before Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman.

This 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.

The special prosecutor 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.”.

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.

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.

Dennard resigned in March 2020, 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.

Betsy 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.

In those cases, because Dennard and Murray voluntarily stepped down, their designee on council to select their replacement handled it, not a judge.

Cincinnati voters approved issues on the May primary ballot that will now give council members more immediate power to take action in these situations.

The changes take effect when the Hamilton County Board of Elections certifies the official vote later this month.

Meanwhile, Sundermann put forward a motion last week to suspend Young.

It’s not clear when that will go before council for a vote.

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