P.G. Sittenfeld trial: FBI agent who led investigation testifies
CINCINNATI (WXIX) - The FBI agent who led the investigation that resulted in corruption charges against three Cincinnati City Council members in 2020 told jurors Wednesday the probe began in 2017.
Special Agent Nathan Halbrook said he joined the investigation in January 2018, shortly before a former Cincinnati Bengal player turned developer, Chinedum Ndukwe, began working as a paid FBI informant and introduced him to Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.
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).
Sittenfeld has steadfastly maintained his innocence from the start and insists the allegations are simply not true.
Sittenfeld’s attorneys said during opening arguments Wednesday that “it is likely” he will take the stand in his own defense.
The trial is expected to last two to three weeks.
According to his indictment, Sittenfeld accepted bribe money from FBI agents posing as developers over 18 months in 2018 and 2019 while promising to “deliver the votes” and perform other official actions for the development of the old, city-owned Convention Place Mall at 435 Elm Street.
Ndukwe, a friend and campaign supporter of Sittefeld’s for years, wanted to turn 435 Elm Street into a hotel and sports betting operation.
Ndukwe was paid by the FBI 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.
Holbrook testified Thursday that a former Cincinnati City Councilman, Sam Malone, already was working with the FBI and introduced agents to some politicians.
Malone, 51, served on the city council from 2003 to 2005. Then he started running a consulting business called Urban Strategies & Solutions which included the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) as one of its clients.
Urban Strategies & Solutions was hit with the heftiest finding for recovery ($294,000) that was the result of a special audit of MSD for the years 2009 to 2015 that was released by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office in 2018, a copy of it shows. As of Thursday, the auditor’s website still shows that amount is unpaid.
The audit uncovered undocumented work, misuse of government funds, padded expense reports and other violations that cost MSD customers about $779,000, the audit states.
Malone is not involved in Sittenfeld’s charges, but he did introduce other city leaders including Jeff Pastor to FBI agents, FOX19 NOW confirmed last year.
Pastor was arrested just days before Sittenfeld in a separate but similar case.
Federal prosecutors have said Ndukwe agreed to help with their investigation as a witness and an FBI informant in Pastor’s case as well.
Pastor was indicted on charges including bribery, extortion, wire fraud and money laundering related to his role on council.
Pastor is accused of soliciting and receiving $55,000 in bribes between August 2018 and February 2019 in exchange for favorable action on development projects City Council was considering.
He pleaded not guilty and remains free on his own recognizance. His case has been delayed while he looks for a new lawyer after his former one was temporarily suspended by the top courts in Ohio and Kentucky.
Both Pastor and Sittenfeld’s cases relate to the Elm Street project.
It was mentioned several times during opening statements Wednesday as Sittenfeld’s trial got underway in earnest.
Prosecutors told the jury they have evidence showing Sittenfeld made deals/exchanged gifts for votes three different times.
Sittenfeld’s attorneys played audio and video clips featuring Sittenfeld with some undercover FBI agents.
Sittenfeld’s attorneys contended that when the jury sees the clips, they won’t see bribery. They accused the prosecution of not providing the full context of those encounters.
The prosecution alleges 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.
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.
He also allegedly presented voting data showing that he is politically popular throughout Cincinnati and said he is likely to be the next mayor.
Sittenfeld said, according to his indictment, “I can move more votes than any other single person…” He allegedly reiterated in December 2018, “don’t let these be my famous last words, but I can always get a vote to my left or a vote to my right.”
Holbrook played the videotapes of these examples from Sittenfeld’s indictment in court Thursday including 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.”
Over the next several months, it also is alleged Sittenfeld told the investors he was continuing to apply pressure, and promised to apply additional pressure, to public officials relating to their agreement involving the development project.
He presented voting data showing that he is politically popular throughout Cincinnati and said he is likely to be the next mayor, according to his indictment which quotes him saying:
“I can move more votes than any other single person…” He allegedly reiterated in December 2018, “don’t let these be my famous last words, but I can always get a vote to my left or a vote to my right.”
Sittenfeld was running in the 2021 Cincinnati mayoral race at the time of his arrest and was considered by some as the front runner with more than $700,000 raised, according to his latest campaign finance report on file.
Sittenfeld’s legal team says 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.
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.
He never once took them up on any of their offers, according to his attorneys.
Sittenfeld did, however, accept 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, court records show.
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 all gifts received in the year valued at over $75 be disclosed, court filings state.
Sittenfeld’s attorneys have countered that Sittenfeld thought the gift was under $75 because he doesn’t 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), the court records continue, “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.”
Defense attorney Charlie Rittgers said in court Wednesday that when Sittenfeld told the federal agents that he could get the votes, that is the same thing that the Democrat and Republican whips do on Capitol Hill.
Rittgers also gave the jury an example of how Sittenfeld’s votes are not for sale.
He pointed out that FC Cincinnati Co-CEO Jeff Berding contributed to Sittenfeld’s campaign for years but voted against Berding’s preference for the club’s new stadium to be built in Oakley.
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 on Wednesday was former Cincinnati City Councilman Kevin Flynn.
He served on council with Sittenfeld from 2013 to 2017.
Flynn’s testimony is limited to giving general background about how city government and council and development deals work, Cole wrote in a court order last week that determined who could and couldn’t testify.
The city of Cincinnati’s former economic development director, Phil Denning, now an executive vice president at the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, also testified on Wednesday.
The Port Authority owns the 435 Elm Street property which is the focus of the case.
There are more than 45 other possible witnesses lined up to testify for both the prosecution and defense.
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,” court records show.
For the Prosecution:
- Ndukwe, who also was a friend and campaign supporter and contributor of Sittenfeld’s. He introduced Sittenfeld to the undercover FBI agents.
- 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 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 Mayor John Cranley, who was in office from December 2013 to early 2022. After Kincaid stopped working as Cranley’s chief of staff, he was a lobbyist for Ndukwe, the FBI agent testified in court Thursday. Holbrook testified Thursday that Ndukwe told him that Sittenfeld had told him to talk to Kincaid about how to “discretely” make donations.
- Claire McKenna, a public accountant.
- Laura Brunner, president of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority which owns the 435 Elm Street property that is the focus of the case
- 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.
- 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
- 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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