Five Cincinnati City Council Members Could Face Misdemeanor Charges Over Texting Controversy

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters has named a special prosecutor to convene a grand jury on the charges.

click to enlarge Cincinnati City Hall - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati City Hall

Five members of Cincinnati City Council caught up in controversy around their text messages could face misdemeanor charges after a recommendation from Ohio Auditor Keith Faber. 

Faber, a Republican, suggested the charges for Tamaya Dennard, Greg Landsman, Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld and Wendell Young, all Democrats, to the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office after looking into a months-long controversy stemming from the departure of Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black in 2018. 

A lawsuit against the city turned up 10 months worth of texts among and between the five members of council. The texts in which all five council members were communicating at the same time about city business — including the controversy around Black's ouster — broke Ohio open meetings laws. 

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters today held a news conference to announce that he has named former federal prosecutor Patrick Hanley to investigate the case. Deters is running for reelection next year.

Deters considered charging the five earlier this year, but did not do so at that time and passed the decision on to Hamilton County Judge Robert Ruehlman, who ordered the city to pay $90,000 in legal costs and $11,000 in fines to conservative activists who sued the city to receive the texts under open records laws.

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 and has been vocally critical of the five Democrats. He has long enjoyed the support of the conservative activists who brought the lawsuit against the city. 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 $644,000 settlement paid to Black when he resigned.

Attorney Mark Miller, a member of the Coalition Opposing Additional Spending and Taxes, said he brought the lawsuit over the text messages 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 in which the city settled his lawsuit. "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."

Democrats, however, see politics at play. 

"Local elected Republican officials put this issue to bed nearly a year ago, and now the Republican state auditor – who is Trump's re-election campaign co-chair and was a central player in the statewide ECOT charter school corruption scandal – is trying to make a name for himself in Cincinnati," The Hamilton County Democratic Party said in a statement. "Hamilton County residents care about good paying jobs and infrastructure improvements, not hyper-partisan shenanigans. It's time to move on."

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