P.G. Sittenfeld trial: Judge denies defense request to acquit him in public corruption case
CINCINNATI (WXIX) - A federal judge overseeing the public corruption trial of P.G. Sittenfeld denied the defense’s request Wednesday to acquit the former Cincinnati City Councilman on all charges.
There is enough evidence in the prosecution’s case for the jury to decide a verdict, ruled U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole.
“I knew this motion was coming,” Judge Cole said. “I think at this stage right now there is sufficient ambiguity a jury could find a quid pro quo exists.”
Sittenfeld’s attorneys said during opening statements last week that “it is likely” he will take the stand in his own defense.
But it’s not clear if that will happen. His attorneys did not say in court and declined to discuss it with FOX19 NOW.
Sittenfeld, 37, of East Walnut Hills, is accused of promising to support, perform “official acts,” and “deliver the votes” to help the development of a property with sports betting at 435 Elm Street across from the Duke Energy Convention Downtown in exchange for $40,000 in donations to his political action fund (PAC).
Sittenfeld faces two counts each of honest services wire fraud, bribery, and attempted extortion by a government official.
Sittenfeld has pleaded not guilty and insisted since the day he was indicted all allegations are false.
The indictment states Sittenfeld solicited the money in exchange for his support to develop 435 Elm Street which 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 attorneys have repeatedly said his indictment actually proves he did not commit a quid pro quo.
They say he has always been pro-development, his actions are all perfectly legal and this is typical business conducted by politicians.
Both the defense and prosecution agreed to a schedule that has the defense calling five witnesses to the stand Thursday. Judge Cole unexpectedly announced late Thursday afternoon there would be no court on Friday so the jury could rest.
Courthouses will be closed through the July 4th holiday weekend. When court resumes at 9 a.m. Tuesday, closing arguments are tentatively scheduled.
Defense attorneys began presenting their case Wednesday afternoon, calling Cincinnati’s interim city manager, John Curp, to the stand as the first of multiple character witnesses for Sittenfeld they want jurors to hear from.
Curp’s testimony did not last long. Prosecutors wanted to talk to him about an email between him and Chinedum Ndukwe from when he represented Ndukwe in the past while working for a private law firm. Curp also is a former city solicitor from 2008 to 2014.
Curp raised concerns over attorney-client privilege, so court was halted while attempts were unsuccessfully made to reach Ndukwe.
Curp is to take the stand again about 9 a.m. Thursday.
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 Sittenfeld takes the stand, prosecutors can present rebuttal new witnesses and/or new evidence.
Prosecutors also can call witnesses of their own to discuss development projects to be fair, Judge Cole told them.
Earlier in the day, federal prosecutors called their final two witnesses - Democratic strategist Jared Kamrass, who was the treasurer of Sittenfeld’s political action fund (PAC) and Laura Brunner, CEO and president of The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority.
Kamrass’ name has come up in court a few times, most notably on Friday.
FBI Special Agent Nathan Holbrook, the lead agent on the investigation that led to Sittenfeld’s indictment, confirmed under cross-examination by Sittenfeld’s lawyer that Kamrass “pocketed” $15,000 that FBI agents gave him for Mayor John Cranley’s campaign.
Federal officials began investigating public corruption in Cincinnati in September 2017, Holbrook also revealed in testimony last week.
He did not say what prompted agents to launch the probe, which he joined in early 2018 when he was transferred to the Cincinnati FBI office from the agency’s office in Indianapolis.
By the end of 2020, three City Council members were under indictment in similar but separate public corruption cases: Sittenfeld, Jeff Pastor and Tamaya Dennard.
On Wednesday, Kamrass testified that he stole the $15,000 in 2018.
He said the people who gave him the money told him it was for the mayor not to stand in the way of their project, 435 Elm Street.
Kamrass testified that he kept it and never told Cranley but regrets stealing it now.
“It was something I knew I shouldn’t have done and to this day it remains the biggest mistake of my life,” he said.
FBI agents approached him in July 2020 and he signed a proffer agreement with them, agreeing to cooperate in their investigation shortly after, he said.
He wore a wire around Sittenfeld, according to his testimony, but no illegal conduct was captured.
Kamrass testified about specific campaigning techniques and fundraising strategies of Sittenfeld - none of which are illegal, he confirmed under cross-examination.
In 2019, Sittenfeld emailed him a New York Times article about the FBI conducting public corruption investigations in some of the country’s largest cities like Chicago and Atlanta, Kamrass said.
They discussed the article and then Sittenfeld had them communicate via electronic messages on Signal, an encrypted app that automatically deletes messages, according to Kamrass’ testimony.
Sittenfeld wanted to make sure no one could read their communications other than the two of them, he said.
Sittenfeld’s attorneys unsuccessfully tried to keep Kamrass, his former PAC treasurer, from testifying in this trial, dismissing him as a “disgruntled” former employee who was “fired after Mr. Sittenfeld discovered he acted dishonestly.”
Judge Cole determined Kamrass can testify because it relates to Sittenfeld’s “intent and conduct at issue in this case.”
Kamrass processed Sittenfeld’s PAC donations and advised him how to take donations from investors who turned out to be FBI agents, according to testimony so far.
Kamrass is a former worker at Rivertown Strategies in downtown Cincinnati and served as a consultant for local and state politicians like Cranley and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown.
He has run fundraising for Cranley, identifying himself in media reports last year as a spokesman for Cranley’s PAC during his campaign for Ohio’s governor.
When questioned on the stand Wednesday about his background as a political consultant and past clients, Kamrass confirmed he has worked for Dayton Mayor/current Democratic candidate for Ohio governor Nan Whaley and Cincinnati City Councilman Greg Landsman, who is challenging U.S. Congressman Steve Chabot this fall.
Kamrass hasn’t done any fundraising for Landsman or Whaley in several years. Cranley, Sittenfeld and former Cincinnati Councilman David Mann are more recent past clients.
Like another key witness in the case against Sittenfeld, Ndukwe, Kamrass entered into a proffer agreement with the government “after the F.B.I. learned of his criminal acts,” court records state.
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.
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.
Court records indicate Kamrass lied to Sittenfeld “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.”
Public Official A is not named in court records, at least so far, but the person is described in multiple filings as the mayor of Cincinnati (which was Cranley) 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 recent defense motion states.
Kamrass said Sittenfeld fired him in October 2019 because he forged an email and lied about it.
Prosecutors called Brunner to testify in part because Holbrook said on the stand last week Sittenfeld pressured Brunner and other city officials over the Elm Street property.
Brunner told jurors Sittenfeld’s interactions with her about the property at 435 Elm and Ndukwe developing the project were fine at first.
But then they became “aggressive,” she said.
“They were too frequent, too long and too direct,” Brunner said. “He wanted me to enter into an agreement with Mr. Ndukwe whether I thought it was a good idea or not.”
Ndukwe testified Tuesday that developers can only get approval for their projects in the city of Cincinnati if they donate to elected officials.
“In my opinion, the city of Cincinnati has been corrupt for an extremely long time,” Ndukwe announced on the stand.
Saying he felt “preyed upon,” the former Cincinnati Bengal player turned developer agreed to work for the FBI in March 2018 after agents recorded him on a phone call and approached him two months prior.
“I wanted to make sure they weren’t able to do these things and shake people down the way they shook me down,” Ndukwe said.
“There’s been a culture of expectations to give to these politicians and that’s what I wanted to stop.”
The FBI paid him $27,000 in 2018 and 2019 to target government officials.
“Ndukwe began working for the government in March 2018 after an investigation of him revealed his involvement in campaign finance law violations, IRA early withdrawal violations and an assortment of other potential federal crimes,” Sittenfeld’s attorneys wrote in recently filed court records.
According to part of the proffer agreement that Ndukwe signed in March 2018 that was shown in court Tuesday, there is no immunity and he could be prosecuted for aggravated identity theft, money laundering and structured bank transactions.
The government “expressly reserves the rights to pursue any and all investigative leads,” the document states.
FOX19 NOW requested a copy of Ndukwe’s proffer agreement once it was placed in the federal court record Tuesday by one of Sittenfeld’s attorneys with the consent of prosecutors, but court officials said it was not yet public record.
Kamrass’ proffer agreement was not shown in court Thursday, nor is it entered in the public court record.
Ndukwe introduced Sittenfeld and fellow councilman Jeff Pastor to agents who posed as wealthy, out-of-town investors interested in Ndukwe’s plan to develop the former Convention Place Mall at 435 Elm Street in downtown Cincinnati into a hotel and office complex with sports betting.
Sittenfeld who served on council for a decade, and Pastor, 38, a Republican, were both indicted in similar but separate cases just days apart.
Prosecutors say both men engaged in 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) for support and votes for Ndukwe’s Elm Street project.
At the time of his arrest, Sittenfeld was considered by many as the front runner to be Cincinnati’s next mayor.
Ndukwe’s “proffer” agreement with federal authorities that was read in court on Friday alleges Ndukwe met in 2013 with three elected officials and they discussed how to evade campaign donation limits.
Ndukwe 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.
Smitherman told FOX19 NOW last week Ndukwe’s a friend who has donated to his campaigns but everything was legal.
“I never had a meeting with Chin, 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. Chin, 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. Chin Ndukwe and hope that he will find the peace of God in all of this.”
Cranley is currently out of the country. An email FOX19 NOW received from his law firm when we reached out for comment indicates he is out of the country for the next few weeks.
A spokeswoman for Cranley provided the following statement on his behalf Thursday afternoon:
“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.”
Cranley’s former chief of staff when he was mayor between 2013 to 2016 testified for the prosecution on Tuesday.
Jay Kincaid said after he left the mayor’s office, he worked as a lobbyist for Ndukwe and the Port Authority.
Ndukwe told an FBI agent that Sittenfeld told Ndukwe to talk to Kincaid about how to “discretely” make donations, the agent testified.
That didn’t come up Tuesday when Kincaid testified.
Instead, Kincaid said “something felt off” with Ndukwe’s so-called “investors” who bragged about all their money and tried to give Sittenfeld a cash donation and take him on an out-of-state trip.
He said he warned Sittenfeld multiple times not to take donations from the men who turned out to be FBI agents.
Kincaid worked for both Ndukwe and the Port Authority as lobbyists until the Port Authority’s president, knowing they were going to at last hold the property rights to 435 Elm Street, came to him and told him he had to decide which one he would keep.
Kincaid told jurors he chose the Port Authority.
Kincaid also testified that Cranley and Ndukwe had a “falling out” after Ndukwe tore down a Clifton building without a permit and faced a $25,000 fine.
“He wanted the mayor and I to intercede and to make the problem go away but that didn’t happen,” Kincaid said on the stand.
He said Ndukwe told him ‘I don’t feel I’m getting a return on my investment for campaign contributions to the mayor … if that doesn’t change, I’ll have to reconsider my support.”
Kincaid said he told Cranley who responded “I’m done with Chin.”
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