P.G. Sittenfeld trial: Former City Councilmember takes the stand

The former City Council member called the FBI operation against him a “sting.”
Published: Jul. 5, 2022 at 7:47 AM EDT
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - Former Cincinnati City Council member P.G. Sittenfeld testified in his own defense Tuesday as the federal public corruption trial entered its second week.

“I did never and would never, under any circumstances, sell my vote or trade my vote for a campaign donation,” Sittenfeld said.

Sittenfeld’s defense attorney sought to emphasize that Sittenfeld’s actions were within the bounds of how modern politics works, that Sittenfeld did not interpret the FBI agents’ actions as criminal and that the indictment against him gives no context to recorded statements made by Sittenfeld to the agents wearing wire taps.

Sittenfeld referred to the FBI operation as a “sting.” He said he considered Chinedum Ndukwe as a “trusted” friend and could never comprehend that the former Bengal or FBI agents would present anything illegal to him.

Former City Councilman Chris Seelbach also testified Tuesday, delving into the nuances of political fundraising and his friendship with Sittenfeld.

“If you want a voice, a seat at the table, to win a campaign, you gotta raise a lot of money,” Seelbach said. “Always over ask. If you think you can get $500, ask for $1000. People are investing in you. They do not want to give to someone that will lose.”

The defense maintained that Sittenfeld’s actions were politically standard.

“I get it seems it shouldn’t be, but that is the way it is. It’s ethical, it’s legal, and it’s common. If you want to win, you have to raise money,” Seelbach testified.

University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven doubts that defense will work. The “everybody does it” defense might be true, Niven says, but could also be underwhelming to the jury.

“The heart of the defense comes from the prosecution’s own witnesses testimony that Sittenfeld repeatedly refused to put money in his own pocket,” Niven said Tuesday.

Interim City Manager John Curp and attorney Lucas Blocher also took the stand for the defense Tuesday.

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 in downtown Cincinnati in exchange for $40,000 in donations to his political action fund (PAC).

Sittenfeld was indicted in November 2020 on two counts each of honest services wire fraud, bribery, and attempted extortion by a government official.

The indictment states Sittenfeld solicited the money in exchange for his support to develop the Elm Street property which former Cincinnati Bengals player turned developer, Chinedum Ndukwe, envisioned as a hotel and office complex with apartments and a restaurant.

Sittenfeld also made it clear to the undercover agents how to donate the money, how much and what they would get in return, prosecutors have said.

Jurors have spent days watching video recordings and listening to audio recordings of Sittenfeld meeting with or talking to undercover agents who posed as out-of-town investors of Ndukwe’s, a paid FBI informant.

According to Sittenfeld’s 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 has pleaded not guilty and insisted since the day he was indicted that all allegations are false.

“The attempt to portray proper assistance to a project bringing jobs and growth to our city that benefits the public is a gross overreach and an injustice,” he tweeted at that time. “I stand strongly on my record of public service, including providing help that’s in the public interest, to anyone, whether they have ever made a political contribution to me or not.”

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.

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.

Sittenfeld’s lawyers requested 13 character witnesses to testify in support of him, but the judge quickly made it clear that was not acceptable and would not happen.

He told them they were only permitted to bring in witnesses who could testify to conduct similar to the alleged crimes.

To be fair, the judge noted, prosecutors could then bring in rebuttal witnesses to speak to developments.

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