P.G. Sittenfeld trial: FBI agents spent $100K on Miami trip with visit to strip club; $4K on monthly penthouse rent

P.G. Sittenfeld trial: FBI agent returns to stand for more questioning Monday
Published: Jun. 27, 2022 at 6:05 AM EDT|Updated: Jun. 27, 2022 at 7:41 PM EDT
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - Public corruption is the number one criminal priority of the FBI’s Cincinnati office but the investigations don’t come cheap.

That was revealed in federal court Monday as the trial of former Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld enters its second week.

FBI Agent Nathan Holbrook, the lead agent on the investigation that resulted in Sittenfeld’s indictment, testified two days last week and again Monday as prosecutors began to lay out their case in detail against Sittenfeld.

An assistant federal prosecutor asked Holbrook on Monday to define how the FBI classifies public corruption investigations after one of Sittenfeld’s attorneys discussed the cost to taxpayers.

It’s a top national security priority for the agency nationwide and “the number one criminal priority” in the Cincinnati area because elected officials are in the public trust, he responded.

Charles H. Rittgers revealed while cross-examining Holbrook that FBI agents shelled out $100,000 to take another elected official on a trip to Miami in 2018 with former Cincinnati Bengal turned developer Chinedum Ndukwe, a paid FBI informant.

The group flew down on a private plane, stayed in a “nice” hotel, dined at “fancy restaurants,” drank “expensive” liquor, cruised on a yacht and visited a “high-end strip club” called Tootsie’s Cabaret, according to Rittgers.

Sittenfeld didn’t go on a trip to Miami, or to other destinations like Nashville and Las Vegas that agents offered to take him to.

But another Cincinnati councilman did, according to court records: Jeff Pastor. The Republican was indicted just days before Sittenfeld in November 2020 in a separate but similar case.

Pastor, 38, was only six months into his first term before he sought his first bribe, according to the FBI.

The FBI also rented a plush pad: a penthouse Downtown in the heart of the business district on Walnut Street for about $4,000 a month as they spent more time on corruption cases in Cincinnati, according to other testimony Monday.

The penthouse was used for more investigations than just Sittenfeld, according to federal prosecutors.

When agents stayed in the city during other investigations that began in 2017, they booked hotel rooms, an FBI agent testified.

But, he said, it began to make more sense to rent instead of paying for hotels.

Sittenfeld, 37, a Democrat who served on council for a decade, was indicted just days after Pastor on two counts each of honest services wire fraud, bribery, and attempted extortion by a government official.

Sittenfeld and Pastor are two of three council members charged in 2020 in what prosecutors describe as a pay-to-play scheme in exchange for votes or support for development projects - in Sittenfeld’s case, contributions to his political action committee (PAC).

According to his indictment, Sittenfeld accepted bribe money from FBI agents posing as developers 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 envisioned The Elm Street property as a hotel and office complex with sports betting. That project is a central focus of the cases against Sittenfeld and Pastor.

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At the time of his arrest, Sittenfeld was considered by many as the front runner to be Cincinnati’s next mayor.

Sittenfeld pleaded not guilty and repeatedly 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.

He never asked for or accepted cash, paid for, or offered to pay for his meals and drinks the seven or eight times he dined out with agents and didn’t take the agents up on offers to contribute further, telling them “we’re good,” Rittgers said.

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. That was discussed in detail in court last week and again on Monday.

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.

Before the November 2018 general election, people could contribute $1,100 to the city of Cincinnati candidates both individually and from as many LLCs as that individual owned. Issue 13 was passed limiting it to one or the other and not under multiple LLCs.

At one point, Ndukwe told Sittenfeld one of the potential “investors” who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent couldn’t meet with him until after the election and Sittenfeld replied, according to his indictment and testimony outlined in court on Monday: “one challenge is that obviously after the, the deadline,” referring to Election Day when Issue 13 was up for a vote.

Sittenfeld told Ndukwe, who sought his support for the Elm Street property, according to his indictment and taped conversations shown in writing and played for the jury on Monday: “....you don’t want me to be like, ‘hey Chim, like I love you but can’t’....

FBI agents began investigating public corruption in Cincinnati in 2017, court testimony revealed last week. Holbrook said in testimony last week he was transferred to the Cincinnati FBI office in early 2018 and given multiple open cases.

One involved Ndukwe, who then 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.

In 2018, Ndukwe introduced Sittenfeld to Holbrook and other undercover agents who all posed as wealthy, out-of-town investors interested in Ndukwe’s development.

Holbrook testified last week that Sittenfeld became the target of an FBI investigation in October of 2018 and the investigation that started the previous year was related to something else.

Holbrook did not elaborate on the 2017 investigation.

Sittenfeld never asked for or accepted cash, paid for, or offered to pay for his meals and drinks the seven or eight times he dined out with agents and didn’t take the agents up on offers to contribute further, telling them “we’re good,” Rittgers said.

Federal prosecutors and FBI agents countered Monday that Sittenfeld knew perfectly well what he was doing. Sittenfeld checked first with his PAC treasurer to see which would be best and felt cash would be too big a headache for both him and “Rob,” testimony revealed. Money orders were ruled out because that was essentially cash, so then Sittenfeld directed checks to his PAC.

Sittenfeld 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. That was discussed in detail in court last week and again on Monday.

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.

Three agents worked on Sittenfeld’s case and Pastors: “Vinny,” “Rob” and “Brian.”

Brian has yet to testify.

“Vinny” and “Rob” are both veteran agents who specialize in undercover work. “Vinny” retired 18 months ago but before he did, he was brought into the Sittenfeld case to play a “cameo” role as a high-rolling “Boss” of Rob and Brian.

“Vinny” and “Rob” spent several minutes explaining to the jury how undercover investigations work and how they pose as others.

Rob said he travels with his alias ID at all times, even when he gets a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

“Vinny” said he would become his persona from the moment he woke up.

Vinny testified he first met Sittenfeld at a Reds Opening Day party the FBI agents threw at their penthouse in March or April 2019 (Opening Day in 2019 was on March 28).

He was not there for Sittenfeld in particular, however.

“I was at the party to engage a different subject of the investigation,” Vinne told jurors. He did not elaborate.

Rob first met Sittenfeld at a dinner in February 2018. He said he was introduced to Sittenfeld as he met other elected leaders in the city. They wound up going out for multiple meals together at some of the city’s finest restaurants.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Megan Gaffney Painter revealed during Rob’s testimony he received a letter of censure for unprofessional conduct during the investigation in Cincinnati.

He testified he had a consensual sexual relationship off duty in the penthouse that caused an issue for the reputation of the case.

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 last week.

Flynn’s testimony 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.

One apparently didn’t know he was going to be subpoenaed as a defense witness and had concerns about the scope of his testimony.

The judge overseeing the case, U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole, met in chambers last week with the defense and talked with the witness and his attorney. Cole did not identify the witness.

It’s not clear yet how many people 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 that could be called to the stand at any time include:

  • Ndukwe
  • Laura Brunner, president and CEO of the Port Authority. Holbrook told jurors Sittenfeld began to “pressure” city officials including Brunner, over the Elm Street property. “She likes to act like she’s the king - and she’s not,” Sittenfeld said in one recorded conversation. He also is recorded telling “Vinny”: “I forced her to move forward.”
  • Kamrass, former treasurer of Sittenfeld’s PAC who processed Sittenfeld’s donations and also ran fundraising in the past for then-Mayor John Cranley. Like Ndukwe, Kamrass entered into a proffer agreement with the government “after the F.B.I. learned of his criminal acts,” court records state. Sittenfeld’s attorneys unsuccessfully tried to keep Kamrass’ testimony out of this trial, describing him as “J.K.” and dismissing him in court filings as a “disgruntled former employee” who was “fired after Mr. Sittenfeld discovered he acted dishonestly. Sittenfeld was “unaware” of Kamrass’ crimes “which were unrelated to his employment with Mr. Sittenfeld” or that Kamrass had a proffer agreement with the government when he fired him, a defense filing states. The judge determined he can testify because it relates to Sittenfeld’s “intent and conduct at issue in this case.” Kamrass is expected to testify for the prosecution at some point this week about specific campaigning techniques and fundraising strategies of Sittenfeld and his campaign advisors. 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.
  • Jay Kincaid, a political consultant and former chief of staff for 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 last week. Ndukwe told him that Sittenfeld told Ndukwe to talk to Kincaid about how to “discretely” make donations, Holbrook said on the stand.
  • 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
  • Former Cincinnati deputy city solicitor Luke Blocher, who now works for Taft Stettinius & Hollister, a Downtown law firm. When he worked for the city, he was responsible for leading the divisions supporting the city’s economic development, real estate, municipal finance, land use and planning, and transportation functions.
  • Christie Bryant Kuhns, former Democratic state representative who represented the 32nd District (Cincinnati), lawyer and community advocate
  • Means Cameron, a Cincinnati clothing entrepreneur with the successful BlaCkOWned brand (that outfitted the Cincinnati Bengals for the 2022 Super Bowl)

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