For the second time in two weeks, a Cincinnati City Council member has been arrested on charges of corruption related to a scheme that allegedly traded cash for votes relating to the development of the former Convention Place Mall.
On Thursday morning, FBI agents arrested council member P.G. Sittenfeld at his home. Now the presumptive front-runner for Cincinnati’s upcoming mayoral race is featured in a six-count federal indictment for bribery and extortion.
The indictment follows last week’s arrest of council member Jeff Pastor, who was federally charged on Nov. 10 for an assortment of similar charges relating to the same development project.
But there are key differences in the cases against the two elected officials. Pastor is accused of personally enriching himself through $55,000 in bribes. Meanwhile, investigators say Sittenfeld arranged what amounted to campaign donations — though he circumvented election law by directing those payments to a Political Action Committee which he secretly controlled.
During a Thursday press conference announcing the indictment against Sittenfeld, U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said there was no evidence that the two politicians knew of the other’s schemes — even though both were talking to the same developer-turned-informant.
“We don't see a relationship between Mr. Pastor and Mr. Sittenfeld,” DeVillers said, “other than they were drinking from the same cup.”
That cup, in a sense, was Chinedum Ndukwe, a former player for the Cincinnati Bengals who sought to redevelop the site at 435 Elm St. into a hotel and office complex. The FBI approached Ndukwe, who told the investigators he was “tired of being shaken down” by local politicians.
In return, Ndukwe partnered with undercover FBI agents to conduct a shakedown of their own. According to the federal indictment against Sittenfeld, the Cincinnati councilman instructed agents posing as developers how they should donate the money so that the cash would wind up in the PAC without revealing the sources.
Ultimately, Sittenfeld is accused of personally accepting 10 checks, for a total of $40,000, in exchange for votes. In another instance, DeVillers said Sittenfeld had vowed to use the city’s zoning laws to make sure the project would be the only one in the area with sports gambling.
In an exchange included in the indictment, Sittenfeld told an undercover source posing as a developer, “I can move more votes than any single person” on the council. In another instance, Sittenfeld is alleged to have met two people he thought were developers in December 2018. The “developers” gave the politician four $5,000 checks, which he placed in his jacket pocket.
During the meeting, Sittenfeld allegedly promised he would get the votes necessary to support the development project, and added, “Don’t let these be my famous last words, but I can always get a vote to my left or a vote to the right.”
This latest arrest and indictment of a member of the Cincinnati City Council, let alone one with aspirations for mayor, suggests a “culture of corruption” in city politics, DeVillers said. He noted that three council members — amounting to one-third of the nine-member body — have been federally indicted in 2020.
The year’s carousel of corruption cases began in February when council member Tamaya Dennard was indicted on federal bribery charges related to her solicitation of $15,000 from a local attorney. Dennard resigned in March, pleaded guilty in June, and faces a sentencing hearing later this month.
Pastor, who has vowed to fight the allegations against him, is the target of multiple legal efforts to remove or suspend him from office in light of the federal indictment.
Before his arrest Thursday, Sittenfeld had expressed dismay at the arrests of his colleagues on the council, though at the same time, according to the FBI’s investigation, he’d been working on his own bribery scheme since September 2018. After Dennard’s arrest earlier this year, Sittenfield told WCPO 9 that he was “devastated” and “shocked by news about someone who has been both a friend and a colleague.”
Similarly, after Pastor’s arrest on Nov. 10, Sittenfeld responded like a statesman shocked at the corruption around him.
“This is a sad day for our city,” Sittenfeld tweeted. “If the allegations are true, a new member of Council needs to be appointed to move forward with the many pressing issues facing our community.”