Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Robert Ruehlman March 7 signed off on a settlement in which the City of Cincinnati will pay $101,000 to conservative activist Mark Miller and his attorney over text messages sent among five members of Cincinnati City Council in violation of Ohio's open meetings laws.
Media, the council members, city attorneys and attorneys with the Finney Law Firm, which represented Miller, packed into the courtroom this morning, where Ruehlman railed against the actions of council members Wendell Young, P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Greg Landsman and Tamaya Dennard.
In a series of intense statements from the bench, Ruehlman, a Republican, invoked the memory of good-governance crusader Murray Seasongood and said the Democratic council members should resign from their offices and pay the money back.
"First of all, you essentially lied to the people of this city," Ruehlman said, saying the council members conducted secret meetings via text message. "The real business of the city was handled through these emails and texts."
Ruehlman said his admonitions of the council members had nothing to do with political ideology. But he has made some rulings in the past that higher courts have called "brazen" and "shaky, and in 2016, The Cincinnati Enquirer's Editorial Board wrote that Ruehlman should retire due to his performance.
Meanwhile, council members at the center of the drama say that, while they made a mistake texting between themselves, the lawsuit by Miller — a member of Republican-aligned Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes — and the attendant uproar over their actions is overblown and politically-motivated.
There are some political implications to the controversy. Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, a conservative-leaning independent, has announced he is running for mayor in 2021, has been vocally critical of the five Democrats and has long enjoyed the support of COAST. Sittenfeld is seen as his most likely and viable challenger in that race.
The text message uproar broke out after five members of council issued a statement last spring about embattled Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black, whom Mayor John Cranley wanted removed from his position because Black had fired a high-ranking Cincinnati Police official. Council was reluctant to fire Black, however, triggering a weeks-long, three-way standoff that resulted in a $600,000 settlement paid to Black when he resigned.
Miller says he brought the lawsuit because the five had been texting among themselves about city business.
"They purposely and intentionally violated the open meetings act with what they did on their own, out of public view," Miller said after the hearing. "They need to conduct the public's business in public. It took a judge and a lot of legal horsepower to bring them around to what they should have been doing all along."The city will pay $1,000 to Miller for the violation around the group texts, $10,000 because council member Wendell Young deleted some of his texts and $90,000 in legal fees to the Finney Law Firm for work that attorney Brian Shrive did on Miller's behalf in the case.
In addition, the city spent more than $70,000 on outside representation — partly on independent counsel to mitigate conflicts of interest when activists launched another public records lawsuit regarding texts sent by Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, and partly to pay outside tech consultants who retrieved the texts from council members' phones. According to officials, city attorneys spent more than 400 hours on the case.
Some council members say the uproar has a distinct political element and say they will not be resigning. Others have refused comment so far.
Council member Tamaya Dennard responded to the controversy via a thread on Twitter.
"Once we understood that the five of us texting was a violation, those texts were immediately turned over to the law department," she tweeted. "What you have seen unfold in the media is not about an open and transparent government. This ordeal is a vehicle to avenge political vendettas."
"If this was truly about transparency, EVERY City of Cincinnati elected officials’ text messages would have been requested," she continued in another tweet. "The truth became lost in the sensationalism of the story. I want you, my supporters and constituents to know the truth."
Dennard indicated March 8 that she will pay her $200 portion of the fine for the public meetings violation. Landsman, Seelbach and Sittenfeld have indicated they have or will as well.
Council member P.G. Sittenfeld initially called a news conference at City Hall, but released a written statement instead. In it, he called the texts between a majority of council "an honest mistake," but also characterized the legal proceedings as politically-motivated.
"Recently the important business of the City has been hijacked by politically motivated actions of a local right-wing group and their affiliated law firm, whose goals, put simply, are to cause chaos and enrich themselves," he said in the statement, accusing Miller's attorney Shrive of attempting to invade his privacy by seeking personal correspondence. "I am proud of the work that my team and I have undertaken since first being elected in 2011. During the past eight years, I have never once lost sight of the reason why I first ran for office - and that is to make positive change and get things done for the people of our community, and that’s exactly what I will continue to do."
Council member Greg Landsman struck a similar tone outside the courtroom.
"The only thing you can do is take responsibility for your actions," he said. "I've said they were a mistake from the beginning. You have to move on and work harder."
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chair Gwen McFarlin issued a statement March 7 blasting Ruehlman and COAST.
"I remember when the name Ruehlman stood for good government in Cincinnati," she wrote. "The exploitation of this issue by far-right members of the Republican Party – from Councilman Christopher Smitherman to prominent members of COAST – is divisive politics at its worst."
Council member Wendell Young declined to comment, though his attorney Scott Croswell says that Young deleted some of the texts in question "well before" an October court order from Ruehlman requiring them to be turned over, and that he did so only to make room on his phone. Croswell says that the investigation conducted by Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters' office into the texts confirmed that timeline.
"The scientific analysis of his telephone, which he voluntarily gave to the prosecutor to analyze, has shown that there were no text messages deleted in response to the order from Judge Ruehlman," Croswell said.
So, why did the city pay $10,000?
"You'll have to ask the city and Mr. Miller and his attorneys about that," Croswell said.
City attorneys at the courthouse did not comment on the settlement or why the city will pay $10,000 if Young did not violate Ruehlman's order.
After the hearing, Shrive argued that Young destroyed evidence whether he deleted the texts before or after Ruehlman's order to turn them over.
Young will be back in court April 1 for a hearing on the allegations he destroyed evidence and could face contempt of court charges. Ruehlman, however, said that if the evidence Croswell spoke about is true, he could dismiss that hearing.
Beyond the tumultuous hearing, the text message shakeup could have big political implications. Already, the ongoing saga has caused plenty of drama — accusations that council members were hiding from law enforcement, speculation from Smitherman on conservative talk shows that the unreleased texts contained racial slurs (which has turned out to be untrue) and a tweet by COAST that Dennard, a black woman, was being "hunted" by sheriffs deputies, despite the fact she was cooperating with the investigation into the texting scandal. That post drew widespread condemnation.
Last year the city released the texts among all five members, some of which discuss city business or refer to colleagues negatively. As part of the settlement, roughly 25,000 additional texts between those individual council members were released today. CityBeat has obtained those texts.
The texts contain back-and-forth personal conversations between the various members of council about legislation, upcoming votes, unfiltered commentary on social media beefs, disparaging remarks about Cranley, fellow council members and members of the public, and speculations on the public actions and personal lives of other council members.
There are plenty of interesting tidbits about various City Hall business sprinkled in the texts, including commentary on FC Cincinnati's coming West End Stadium. Sittenfeld ended up engineering a key public infrastructure deal worth $35 million that made that stadium a reality. But others in the group of five council members were much more skeptical of the stadium going into the West End.
In April of last year, as city leaders and the team were hustling to make a deal for the stadium, Sittenfeld texted Landsman to gauge his enthusiasm for the facility going into the West End.
"If 1 is a hard no and 10 is a hard yes — any sense where you are on the stadium stuff?" Sittenfeld texted.
"Probably a 1 on the West End," Landsman replied. "Happy to talk Oakley and all in for Nippert. He (FCC President Jeff Berding) had so many chances to get WE on board, and they're not there. But would feel better if he came to Council or submit something. After I thought about it a bit, and with folks looking at our calendar, I don't like the idea of meeting with him. Especially if Jeff wants to cut some sort of deal. I trust you. Not him."
"I totally understand, and don't blame you one bit," Sittenfeld replied. "The process has been abysmal, no doubt."
That isn't the only development talk in the texts. A few of the exchanges between Seelbach and Sittenfeld speculate about allegations made by outgoing City Manager Black that Cranley and associates were improperly controlling economic development deals in Cincinnati.
"Wouldn’t say it’s proof without a reasonable doubt,” Seelbach wrote to Sittenfeld about one accusation by Black that a lobbyist for a developer who held a 2016 fundraiser for Cranley told the city manager that Cranley had promised the company air rights on the city garage on Central Parkway. “But there’s definitely something there if witnesses corroborate.”
Other texts some have implications for the race to replace Cranley in 2021.
Later that day, Smitherman was on a conservative radio show on WLW, where he told host Bill Cunningham that Sittenfeld had singled him out and was "playing politics" while he cared for his ailing wife, who later passed away after a fight with breast cancer.
“Here I am, bedside with my wife, who you know is fighting for her life," he said. "And what P.G. Sittenfeld does is he sends out a tweet, he implies to the public that I’m not present at a press conference that he just did in the last 30 minutes knowing that he’s never had a conversation with me about the legislation at all as I’m sitting bedside with my African American wife and five children."
Sittenfeld's tweets did not mention Smitherman. But texts between Seelbach and Sittenfeld sent later that night discuss Smitherman's accusations, speculate that Smitherman and Cranley suffer from "mental illness," and call Smitherman's statements a "grotesque" attempt to politicize his wife's illness.
"...The fact that he is using his wife, saying ‘While I’m home taking care of my dying wife…’ is disgusting,” Seelbach texted in reply to a Sittenfeld text calling Smitherman "unhinged" and "desperate."
"You think worth my doing anything?" Sittenfeld asks Seelbach. "Or just let it be for now, since Smitherman attacking me on right wing radio is so predictable."
Smitherman released a statement March 8 railing against the texts.
"There are cancer patients all over this region fighting for life with caregivers who love them dearly," he wrote. "No person can ever understand the magnitude of a loss of this kind unless you have walked in these shoes. ...As a family we do not wish this crisis on our worst enemy. There is nothing political about death. Nothing!"