Cincinnati City Council approves anti-corruption reforms

Published: Oct. 27, 2021 at 8:01 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 27, 2021 at 10:18 AM EDT
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - Rocked by a corruption scandal that saw three members indicted on bribery charges last year, Cincinnati City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to approve two anti-corruption reform measures.

One will prohibit council members from soliciting and accepting campaign contributions from those having a financial interest in city business while that business is pending before council, city records show.

The other will create the position of ethics czar. This person will investigate ethics violation complaints, oversee a confidential whistleblower hotline and in general support ethics, election and campaign finance efforts.

Reform was needed after federal officials announced in November 2020 there was a “culture of corruption” in Cincinnati City Hall.

The three council members who were arrested were all accused of promising or exchanging votes for money or campaign contributions, federal court records show.

Tamaya Dennard was arrested Feb. 25, 2020, on charges of wire fraud, bribery and attempted extortion.

She resigned the following month and eventually admitted she accepted a total of $15,000 from a person doing business with the city who was an attorney for the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners, in exchange for her votes at City Hall.

Dennard pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. The other charges were dropped.

She also was ordered to pay a $15,000 money judgment against her and will be supervised for three years once the prison sentence is finished, federal officials have said.

Jeff Pastor was arrested Nov. 10, 2020, on charges of bribery, money laundering and conspiracy. Federal court records accuse him of selling his votes on two developments.

P.G. Sittenfeld was arrested on similar charges just over a week later, on Nov. 19, 2020. He’s accused of selling votes in exchange for campaign contributions.

Both men have pleaded not guilty, and their cases are pending.

Both took voluntary suspensions from council, which allow them to keep collecting their taxpayer-funded paychecks and medical benefits.

Earlier this year, in a separate state case, a fourth council member was indicted on a felony tampering with records charge.

Wendell Young is accused of purposely deleting text messages from his cell phone despite a court order instructing him to retain them because they were evidence in what is known as the “Gang of Five” lawsuit.

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 - Sittenfeld, Dennard, Chris Seelbach and Greg Landsman - over text messages they exchanged secretly deciding public city business in 2018.

They discussed how to keep the city manager and potentially regain power from Mayor John Cranley, copies of the messages show.

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.”

An anti-tax activist sued for the secret messages in April 2018 after he was unable to obtain them from the city via a public records request.

“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,” the special prosecutor wrote in a news release when he announced the charge.

The judge who ordered the “Gang of Five” to retain all text messages and emails already has considered this and determined there was not enough evidence to charge Young with contempt of court for deleting his text messages.

Young’s lawyer has said Young has always maintained he deleted the texts 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.

Young has pleaded not guilty and continues to serve on council.

The special prosecutor also then sought to suspend Young from office due to his felony indictment.

A special commission for the Ohio Supreme Court rejected it.

The special commission wrote in their decision “the felony charge against Mr. Young involves alleged conduct that occurred approximately three years ago and that has been public knowledge for most of that time, seemingly without adverse effect on the functioning of the office or the rights and interests of the public.”

It was the second failed attempt to suspend Young following his indictment.

Cincinnati voters in May soundly approved changes to the city’s charter introduced by Councilwoman Betsy Sundermann that allows council to suspend a member if that member is indicted for a state or federal felony related to their official council duties.

But only six council members - Greg Landsman, David Mann, Chris Seelbach, Betsy Sundermann, Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, and Liz Keating - voted to suspend Young.

Christopher Smitherman and Steve Goodin abstained.

The measure needed seven votes to pass, so it failed.

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