Testimony begins in P.G. Sittenfeld corruption trial
CINCINNATI (WXIX) - Testimony will resume Thursday morning in the public corruption trial of former Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.
The jury of eight women and four men will hear from a witness for the prosecution who is an undercover FBI agent who headed up the investigation, Special Agent Nathan Holbrook.
Sittenfeld, 37, was indicted in November 2020 on two counts each of honest wires fraud, bribery and attempted extortion by a government official.
Prosecutors allege Sittenfeld promised support for development deals in exchange for $40,000 in donations to his political action fund (PAC).
According to his 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 the development of the old Convention Place Mall at 435 Elm Street before the city council.
The city of Cincinnati owned the property and a former Bengals player turned developer, Chinedum Ndukwe, wanted to turn it into a hotel and sports betting operation.
Those “developers” however, were really undercover federal agents, according to court records.
The prosecution contends Sittenfeld lobbied the agents for campaign donations and promised them that he had the most power to sway votes on city council and could use the city’s zoning laws to keep out any competitors for their sportsbook.
Prosecutors told the jury during opening arguments on Wednesday they have evidence showing Sittenfeld made deals/exchanged gifts for votes three different times.
Audio and video clips featuring Sittenfeld with some of the undercover FBI agents was played in court for the first time.
Sittenfeld’s attorneys say when the jury sees the clips, they won’t see bribery and claim that the prosecution isn’t giving full context.
Sittenfeld’s legal team argues the indictment actually shows he did not engage in a quid pro quo agreement. They also have repeatedly said everything he did was perfectly legal and is just part of the political process in this country.
Defense attorney Charlie Rittgers said in court Wednesday said Sittenfeld telling federal agents he could get the votes is the same thing Democrat and Republican whips do on Capitol hill.
Rittgers also gave the jury an example of how he says Sittenfeld’s votes are not for sale.
FC Cincinnati President Jeff Berding contributed to Sittenfeld’s campaign for years but Sittenfeld voted against Berding’s preference for the club’s new stadium to be built in Oakley, his attorney said.
Sittenfeld has steadfastly maintained his innocence from the start and insists the allegations are simply not true.
“It is likely” he will take the stand in his own defense, his attorneys disclosed during opening statements.
The trial is expected to last two to three weeks.
At the time of his arrest, Sittenfeld was considered to be the front-runner in the 2021 mayoral race. His indictment ended that, at least for now.
Two other Cincinnati councilmembers, Tamara Dennard and Jeff Pastor, were also arrested in 2020 under similar corruption charges - Pastor just days before Sittenfeld.
Here’s who will testify
The first person to take the witness stand for the prosecution Wednesday was former Cincinnati City Councilman Kevin Flynn.
He served on council with Sittenfeld from 2013 to 2017.
Flynn’s testimony was limited to giving general background about how city government and council and development deals work.
Phil Denning, the city’s former economic development director, also testified Wednesday.
He is now an executive vice president at the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, which owns the 435 Elm Street property that is the focus of the case.
There are 47 other possible witnesses lined up to testify for both the prosecution and defense.
For the Prosecution:
- Ndukwe, who also was a friend and campaign supporter and contributor of Sittenfeld’s.
- Jared Kamrass, a Democratic strategist who has a political consulting firm with several Democratic candidate clients. He served as treasurer of Sittenfeld’s PAC and processed Sittenfeld’s PAC donations. Kamrass also ran fundraising for Mayor John Cranley. He 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.”
- Jay Kincaid, a political consultant and former chief of staff for Cranley, who was in office from December 2013 to early 2022
- Claire McKenna, a public accountant
- Jeff Berding, co-CEO of FC Cincinnati
- Laura Brunner, president of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority.
- Chris Cicchinelli, CEO of Pure Romance
- David Spaulding, vice president and general manager of Turner Construction
For the Defense:
- Stephen Leeper: President & CEO of Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC)
- Former CEO of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center Michael Fisher
- Former Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Seelbach.
Seelbach tweeted out his support for Sittenfeld on Monday, according to his @ChrisSeelbach account on Tuesday morning.
“You can say a lot about me. And you all will on here. But the people who know me, know me...know how incredibly loyal I am if I consider you a real friend. There aren’t many. On top of believing @PGSittenfeld is innocent. I support PG.”
- Laura Brunner, CEO and President of Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority
- Luke Blocher, formerly with the city solicitor’s office. Now he works for a private law firm in downtown Cincinnati, Taft Stettinius & Hollister
- Current Interim City Manager John Curp
- CEO Pure Romance Chris Cicchinelli
- Montgomery City Councilman Chris Debozsi
- Brian Tome, pastor of Crossroads Church
- Dan Schimberg, president of Uptown Rental Properties.
- Peg Wyant, president and CEO of Grandin Properties.
- Clare Blankmeyer, executive director of Greenlight Cincinnati Fund.
- Dan Meyer, founder and CEO of Nehemiah Manufacturing.
- Matt Alter, president of Cincinnati Fire Fighters Union Local 48.
- Mike Burke, owner of Zips Café in Mt. Lookout
- Cincinnati Police Officer Donald Jordan.
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