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P.G. Sittenfeld trial: FBI agent confirms political consultant pocketed $15K meant for Cranley campaign

P.G. Sittenfeld trial: FBI agent who led investigation testifies
Published: Jun. 24, 2022 at 5:41 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 24, 2022 at 10:15 PM EDT
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - The lead FBI agent in the corruption investigation that resulted in P.G. Sittenfeld’s indictment confirmed under cross-examination Friday political consultant Jared Kamrass pocketed $15,000 FBI agents gave him for Mayor John Cranley’s campaign.

It was not immediately clear when this occurred, what ultimately happened to the money - or why FBI agents gave Kamrass money for a Cranley campaign.

He served as the treasurer of Sittenfeld’s political action committee (PAC), processed his donations and also ran fundraising in the past for Cranley.

And now Kamrass is going to be a witness for the prosecution. He could take the stand as soon as next week.

Kamrass could be prosecuted and “violated federal laws, about commonplace, legal practices of campaign financing and fundraising” that are not related to Sittenfeld’s case, court records show.

Someone is referred to in multiple court records related to this case as “Public Official A.”

This person’s role is described in more 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,” a 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.”

FBI agents began investigating public corruption in Cincinnati in 2017, court testimony revealed this week.

Special Agent Nathan Holbrook was transferred to the Cincinnati FBI office in early 2018 and given multiple open cases.

One involved former Cincinnati Bengal player-turned developer, Chinedum Ndukwe.

Ndukwe began working for the FBI in March 2018 and was paid $27,000 in cash by the government through 2018 and 2019 to target government officials after an investigation revealed his involvement in “campaign finance law violations in 2013, IRA early withdrawal violations and an assortment of other potential federal crimes,” court records show.

Ndukwe admitted to withdrawing $40,000 from an IRA account in 2013 and gave it to a friend who kept $5,000 and put $35,000 into bank accounts, allowing Ndukwe to avoid campaign finance reporting laws, Holbrook testified Friday.

He gave more than two dozen money orders in other’s names to Cranley and then-Cincinnati City Councilmen Chris Smitherman and Charlie Winburn and nine cashier checks that October, according to Holbrook.

Ndukwe’s “proffer” agreement with federal authorities that was read in court alleges Ndukwe met in 2013 with the three men and they discussed how to evade campaign donation limits.

Smitherman told FOX19 NOW this week Ndukwe’s a friend who has donated to his campaigns but everything was legal.

“I never had a meeting with Chine, period, to discuss the evasion of election laws,” he said Friday night. “Any contribution he made to me in 2013 was legal. The feds have never come and asked me if what he said is true. They never walked into my room and said what is Chine saying? Is it true?’”

Winburn sent the following statement to FOX19: “I don’t recall having a meeting with Mr. Chinn, Mr. Cranley nor Mr. Smitherman to discuss Mr. Chinn’s 9-year-old claim regarding evading campaign finance laws. Not only is this claim crazy, but it is also an utterly ridiculous claim which I emphatically deny! I will continue to pray for Mr. Chinn Ndukwe and hope that he will find the peace of God in all of this.”

Cranley is currently out of the country but a spokesperson reached out to FOX19 on his behalf.

“I never evaded or tried to evade campaign limits. I even met Chin’s dad and thanked him for his help,” Cranley said. “Also, Jay Kincaid’s testimony about the end of my relationship with Chin is correct.”

Ndukwe also was a friend and campaign supporter of Sittenfeld’s for eight years and wanted to turn 435 Elm Street into a hotel and sports betting operation.

Ndukwe introduced him to Sittenfeld and other undercover agents who all posed as wealthy, out-of-town investors interested in Ndukwe’s development.

Holbrook said in cross-examination on Friday that Sittenfeld became the target of an FBI investigation in October of 2018 and the investigation that started in September 2017 was related to something else.

One of Sittenfeld’s attorneys, Charles H. Rittgers, questioned Holbrook about the “sting” operation and “lies” told to Sittenfeld and other city leaders.

It’s lawful investigative techniques the FBI has been successfully using for years, Holbrook responded.

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.

That project is a central focus of the case against Sittenfeld and another councilman who was indicted on similar charges just days before Sittenfeld in November 2020, Jeff Pastor.

Holbrook testified all day both Thursday and Friday as prosecutors showed jurors evidence they say backs up the charges in Sittenfeld’s indictment.

This includes video recordings of meetings Sittenfeld with the undercover agents (”Rob,” “Bryan” and “Vinnie”); phone call recordings and copies of some of the checks from LLCs controlled by the FBI - checks that agents handed to Sittenfeld as part of the investigation.

They also read text messages he exchanged with agents.

Some of the meetings were in a Downtown penthouse for the agents.

Lunches and dinners were set in some of Cincinnati’s prominent restaurants like Nada and suggested future dining options including Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse and Sotto.

Sittenfeld met with agents to personally collect the checks at the penthouse they rented for the operation and in a Columbus hotel room. At the hotel, Sittenfeld was accompanied by an aide, court records show.

On Friday, that aide was revealed in court to be his then-chief of staff, Chris Dalton.

The exchange of money caught on camera is all part of the evidence prosecutors gathered in the case against Sittenfeld. After telling “Vinnie” the zoning code could be used to help the sports betting operation, “Vinnie” told Sittenfeld he would receive “two nickels” that night, or another set of $5,000 checks.

Holbrook walked the jury through several videos and audio recordings taken by the undercover agents and Ndukwe including one that captured Sittenfeld taking two checks, each for $5,000 made out to his political action committee (PAC), Progress and Growth.

Holbrook told jurors Sittenfeld began to “pressure” city officials including Laura Brunner, president of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority which owns the Elm Street property.

“She likes to act like she’s the king - and she’s not,” Sittenfeld said in one recorded conversation.

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.

In all, prosecutors say Sittenfeld accepted $40,000 in campaign contributions from the undercover agents posing as developers.

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 repeatedly texted and phoned the agents to talk and suggest meetings and/or dinners and lunches, according to evidence presented Friday.

One of the undercover agents gave Sittenfeld two $5,000 checks paid to the order of his PAC in just one of the encounters captured on camera at a Downtown penthouse during the investigation.

The jury watched as Sittenfeld hung out with the agents around a kitchen counter that held a hidden recording device and a very visible bottle of bourbon.

They offered to fix him a drink. He opted for ginger beer with bourbon, sitting on a stool at the counter with them at one point and then standing off-camera to face them, his reflection visible on camera through a tall window.

“Where do you guys find these LLCs? Do I not want to know?”

“Yeah, you probably don’t,” one of the agents responded.

“As long as it’s like...” Sittenfeld said.

“Yeah, it’ll pass, it’ll pass the muster test,” the agent told him.

“As long as it passes muster and like a person with a name. My political enemies, like, not to freak you guys, but they like, they like poke around this s---.”

Sittenfeld has denied all wrongdoing.

His 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.

Here’s who already testified, who could soon

Former Cincinnati City Councilman Kevin Flynn, who served on council with Sittenfeld from 2013 to 2017 was the first witness for the prosecution.

Flynn’s testimony earlier this week was limited to giving general background about how city government and council and development deals work.

The city of Cincinnati’s former economic development director testified second.

Phil Denning is now an executive vice president at the Port Authority.

There are more than 40 other possible witnesses lined up to testify for both the prosecution and defense.

It’s not clear yet how many of them will testify. That will depend on how the trial goes.

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 necessary,” court records show.

If, for instance, Sittenfeld does take the stand in his own defense, prosecutors would then have the option to present rebuttal new witnesses and/or new evidence.

Witnesses for the prosecution include:

  • Ndukwe
  • Brunner
  • Kamrass, a Democratic strategist who has a political consulting firm with several Democratic candidate clients. Sittenfeld’s attorneys objected to him taking the stand, but the judge ruled last week 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 also said Ndukwe told him that Sittenfeld had told him to talk to Kincaid about how to “discretely” make donations.
  • Claire McKenna, a public accountant.
  • FC Cincinnati Co-CEO Jeff Berding
  • 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
  • Current Interim City Manager John Curp
  • Brian Tome, pastor of Crossroads Church
  • Dan Schimberg, president of Uptown Rental Properties.
  • Matt Alter, president of Cincinnati Fire Fighters Union Local 48.

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