P.G. Sittenfeld Trial: What to expect
CINCINNATI (WXIX) - Former Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld’s trial begins this week, 19 months after he was arrested on multiple corruption charges.
Sittenfeld, 37, a Democrat who served on council for a decade, was indicted on two counts each of honest services wire fraud, bribery, and attempted extortion by a government official in Nov. 2020.
He was one of three council members charged that year in what prosecutors describe as a pay-to-play scheme in exchange for votes or support for development projects - in Sittenfeld’s case, a contribution to his political action committee (PAC).
At the time of his arrest, Sittenfeld was considered by many as the front runner to be Cincinnati’s next mayor.
Prosecutors allege in court records Sittenfeld promised support for development deals in exchange for $40,000 in donations to his political action fund (PAC).
According to the indictment, Sittenfeld accepted bribe money from “developers” in 2018 and 2019 while promising to “deliver the votes” and perform other official actions with respect to a development project before the city council.
Those “developers” were really federal agents, according to court records.
The indictment states Sittenfeld solicited the money in exchange for his support to develop the former Convention Place Mall at 435 Elm Street in downtown Cincinnati that a former Cincinnati Bengals player turned developer, Chinedum Ndukwe, envisioned as a hotel and office complex with sports betting.
Sittenfeld also made it clear to the undercover agents how to donate the money, how much and what they would get in return, federal officials have said.
According to his indictment, he told the undercover agents that $5,000 was the maximum that could go in the PAC and not be traced back to him and directed them to use different LLCs to pay the money so it could not be traced back to them.
“I’m doing this right and I also want to protect you guys,” the indictment quotes Sittenfeld saying.
Sittenfeld assured undercover agents he could get votes, according to the indictment, telling them, “Look, I’m ready to shepherd the votes as soon as it gets to us at council.”
In another exchange, the indictment quotes Sittenfeld saying of donations and his support: “you know, obviously nothing can be illegal like....illegally nothing can be a quid, quid pro quo. And I know that’s not what you’re saying either. But what I can say is that I’m always super pro-development and revitalization of especially our urban core.”
Sittenfeld’s legal team maintains the indictment actually shows he did not engage in a quid pro quo agreement.
They say Sittenfeld has always been pro-development, his actions are all completely legal and represent typical business conducted by politicians.
On at least six different times over more than a year, undercover agents tried to get Sittenfeld to a trip with them, suggesting destinations including Las Vegas, Miami and Nashville, including the offer to provide a private plane, court records show.
“Unlike other local public officials, Mr. Sittenfeld never once took (them) up on any of these offers,” his attorneys wrote.
Sittenfeld has steadfastly maintained his innocence from the start and recently rejected a plea deal that would have limited his punishment if found guilty to probation only to two years in prison.
The plan is to “fight it until the very end,” Sittenfeld told FOX19 NOW last year outside the federal courthouse.
Federal prosecutors have said in court records a jury should decide the case and not all of their evidence was in Sittenfeld’s indictment.
Jury selection starts at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the federal courthouse in downtown Cincinnati.
Cameras are not allowed in the courtroom.
The trial itself is expected to last a couple of weeks. U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole is presiding.
FOX19 NOW will be in the courtroom and provide daily coverage as well as analysis from our legal consultant, former Hamilton County prosecutor Mike Allen who is now a defense attorney.
There are two key prosecution witnesses who have both agreed to help federal officials after being investigated for crimes, court records show.
- Ndukwe, a friend and supporter of Sittenfeld’s who donated thousands to Sittenfeld and worked as an FBI informant with undercover FBI agents. The men discussed a proposal to build the hotel and sports-betting operation at 435 Elm Street, which the city owns and is vacant. Ndukwe began working for the FBI in 2018 and was paid by the government to target government officials after an investigation revealed his involvement in “campaign finance law violations, IRA early withdrawal violations and an assortment of other potential federal crimes,” court records show.
- Jared Kamrass. This is a former employee of Sittenfeld referred to in court records as “J.K.” who processed Sittenfeld’s PAC donations before Sittenfeld fired him, court records show. Jared Kamrass runs a political consulting firm with multiple Democrat clients and served as treasurer of Sittenfeld’s PAC. “J.K” could be prosecuted and “violated federal laws, about commonplace, legal practices of campaign financing and fundraising” that are not related to this case or project, court records show. Sittenfeld’s attorneys objected to him taking the stand, but the judge ruled Friday he can testify because it relates to Sittenfeld’s “intent and conduct at issue in this case.”
Also expected to testify:
- Cincinnati’s former development director, Philip Denning, who resigned in 2020 to work for REDI Cincinnati, a regional public redevelopment agency
- Former city councilmen Kevin Flynn. Flynn’s testimony will be limited to background about how city government works in Cincinnati related to economic development activities, including what a councilperson’s responsibilities are. “Understanding how the various parts of the city machinery mesh together strikes the court as valuable background information for understanding Sittenfeld’s conduct here. Did Sittenfeld undertake steps to promote a particular project that are atypical for Cincinnati City Council members?” the judge’s order states.
- CEO of the Port Authority of Greater Cincinnati Laura Brunner. The Port is developing the project at 435 Elm Street in downtown Cincinnati that is a focus of the case.
Court records refer to some potential witnesses with just initials and a few details about the associated projects that appear to involve TQL Stadium where FCC Cincinnati holds home games and The Banks.
Sittenfeld’s attorneys tried to keep several of these people from testifying but the judge ruled against them on these three, according to court records:
“J.B.” “Sittenfeld stated he would not vote for a zoning change to benefit a project before the city unless a substantial contribution was made to a third party aligned with Sittenfeld.”
“T.G.” “Sittenfeld indicated he was not going to support T.G.’s development projects because T.G. did not help a third-party entity.”
“R.S.” “Sittenfeld arranged a meeting with R.S. while R.S. had business pending before the city. During the meeting, Sittenfeld discussed R.S.’s project before the city, offered to help with the project, explained that he would likely be the next mayor, and requested contributions. After R.S. paid contributions to Sittenfeld, Sittenfeld helped advance the project as requested by R.S.”
Sittenfeld’s attorneys were successful in keeping out the testimony of four others who prosecutors wanted to testify about Sittenfeld’s fundraising tactics.
A definite witness list is not available and could depend on how the trial goes, court records show.
Prosecutors wanted the judge to limit how Sittenfeld’s attorneys defend him but “if the defendant introduces evidence relating to these investigations, this again ‘opens the door’ for the government to introduce clarifying evidence justifying those investigations, if necesesary.”
Judge’s Cole’s latest order Friday prohibits any mention during the trial of past corruption at City Hall including “Gang of Five” text messages (Sittenfeld admitted to violating Ohio’s Open Meetings Act) and arrests of fellow former council member Jeff Pastor and Tamaya Dennard on unrelated but similar charges.
There also will be no mention of the “culture of corruption” or other remarks made the day Sittenfeld was arrested by the then-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio and FBI agent in charge of the Cincinnati office as well as the July 2020 arrest of Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder.
But the jury will hear about a $277.99 bottle of scotch and a $177.50 box of cigars that two of the undercover agents gave PG as a gift when he and his wife welcomed their first child in 2019.
Prosecutors have written in court records the evidence presented at trial will show (Sittenfeld) affirmed in a public filing to the Ohio Ethics Commission that he did not receive any gifts from the (undercover agents) in 2019, despite a requirement that he list all gifts received in the year valued over $75. Sittenfeld’s attorneys wrote in court records Sittenfeld claims he thought the gift was under $75 because he does not smoke cigars and is not familiar with ‘this kind of alcohol.’”
“This does not change the fact that he received the gifts from (the undercover agents) nor does it change the fact that he has a disclosure obligation, which he signed and affirmed is accurate. The defendant may testify to why he failed to disclose the gifts if he so chooses,” his attorneys wrote in a court filing last week.
The judge has yet to decide if he will grant or rule against a request from prosecutors to keep out two expert defense witnesses: A former FBI agent and 2014 Democratic nominee for Ohio governor, Edward Fitzgerald and Caleb Burns, a Washington, D.C. campaign finance attorney.
It’s also not clear yet if someone referred to in court records as “Public Official A” will be revealed or if that person will testify. Public Official A’s role is described in multiple court records as the mayor of Cincinnati during the time of the investigation:
“Under the charter of the city of Cincinnati, Public Official A could veto a vote of the council, but the council could then override Public Official A’s veto with six out of nine votes,” the defense’s trial motion states.
A recent defense filing said one of Sittenfeld’s campaign finance consultants lied to him “about having followed up with (an undercover FBI agent) to confirm proper LLC principal attribution information. As soon as Mr. Sittenfeld discovered this lie, he immediately fired the individual for dishonesty – an episode the individual has admitted to the FBI. Unbeknownst to Mr. Sitteneld, the same individual committed separate crimes – having nothing to do with Mr. Sittenfeld – while working for Public Official A, causing the individual to ultimately become a government cooperator.”
A letter of censure given to one of the three FBI agents who worked on Sittenfeld’s case is sealed, but federal officials wrote in court records filed last week that it was not directly related to the Sittenfeld investigation.
The agent received the letter of censure in August of 2019 “for misuse of position because he repeatedly invoked his FBI employment in seeking to remedy damage related to his daughter’s car accident,” federal officials wrote in the court document.
“There is nothing about the aforementioned incident that implicates (the undercover FBI agent’s) veracity,” the document states. “Allowing inquiry into the subject will necessitate exploration of the underlying details of this unrelated incident and create a time-wasting sideshow.”
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