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A draft audit of Cincinnati development deals finds no wrongdoing

City Hall as seen from Plum St. in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Jason Whitman
City Hall as seen from Plum St. in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

Cincinnati officials say there may still be work to do on an audit of economic development deals from 2018 to 2020. Council requested the audit about a year and a half ago in response to three council members being indicted for corruption.

The consulting firm Crowe sent the first draft of their findings to the city last month, saying the results "reflect positively on the city."

The audit included about 200 ordinances for things like tax abatements, land sales and direct funding. Each council member's vote on those ordinances were compared to their financial disclosure statement. The audit found no instances of non-compliance, fraud, waste or abuse.

"There are some bigger ideas in there as well, that will ultimately be up to Council and the public if they want to implement," said Chris Liu, director of ethics and good government for the city. "Things like a wider prohibition on campaign contributions from developers, decreasing the number of emergency ordinances that would increase the number of second and third readings for the sake of additional engagement."

Former council member Christopher Smitherman introduced the motion requesting a forensic audit; he says the results don't accomplish the goal.

"The context of the forensic audit was three members of Council arrested by the FBI," Smitherman said. "And what came out in these trials is that developers were being approached about contributions when deals are coming in for the body. And that's unacceptable."

In the space of 10 months in 2020, three City Council members — Democrat Tamaya Dennard in February, Republican Jeff Pastor in November and, days later, Democrat and then-mayoral frontrunner P.G. Sittenfeld — were arrested by federal agents and charged with felonies that centered around taking bribes from developers with business before City Council.

Smitherman says the audit should cross-reference votes on development deals with campaign contributions, and anything short of that will not restore public trust in City Hall.

Confusion about what the audit would include seems to date back to when it was first requested.

Former council member Betsy Sundermann asked city officials what the final report would include before a council committee appropriated the funds on June 7, 2021.

Former budget director Christopher Bigham responded: "They are going to look at the voting trends, they are going to look at if there's any irregularities, they're going to follow the audit standards to see if there was any sort of improprieties, anything like that."

The draft report includes this line: "After discussions with city administration ... Crowe was tasked with conducting an assessment of council actions under AICPA's [American Institute of Certified Public Accountants] consulting standards rather than a performance audit under Government Auditing Standards."

City Manager Sheryl Long said in a statement the city has made no effort to influence Crowe's work or change the scope of the audit.

"A specific auditing standard is something for which the city looks to consultants to help us understand how to effectuate the engagement within the appropriate industry standard," Long said. "We will continue to work with Crowe LLP to effectuate the original RFP and ensure a comprehensive review, even if that requires more work, before a final draft is submitted to Council."

Read the full draft report below:

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.