Analysis: Why The 'Culture Of Corruption' At Cincinnati City Hall?

Nov 18, 2020

Murray Seasongood. Ted Berry. Charlie Taft. Bobbie Sterne. And all the others from generations of leaders at Cincinnati City Hall who have upheld the standards of honesty and integrity in the city's council-manager form of government for generations now.

What would they be thinking if they could see the mess that Cincinnati City Council has become?

They would be appalled.

Since Cincinnati went to a city manager form of government in 1925, accusations of corruption – much less actual arrests and criminal charges – have been as rare as hen's teeth.

But now in the space of 10 months, three City Council members – Democrat Tamaya Dennard in February, Republican Jeff Pastor on Nov. 10 and now Democrat and mayoral frontrunner P.G. Sittenfeld – have been arrested by federal agents and charged with felonies that centered around taking bribes from developers with business before City Council.

Dennard left council and entered a guilty plea in June to a charge of honest services wire fraud. Pastor, who says he is innocent and refuses to quit council, is charged with 10 felony counts, including bribery, extortion, money laundering and wire fraud in two pay-to-play schemes.

Pastor and Sittenfeld are entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. That's the way our system works, thankfully.

In the past, Cincinnati City Council, on its worst days, has been looked on as a hotbed of political posturing and tomfoolery, but now the impression the public is getting is that it is the center of a culture of corruption.

What is going on here?

"There is an endemic problem here,'' said Jerry Newfarmer, a former Cincinnati city manager who runs a consulting firm which advises local governments around the country. "There is never any good excuse for taking bribes, ever. That is obvious.

"But there are practices which have taken hold in City Hall that have led to this,'' Newfarmer said. "And it has to do with elected officials negotiating business deals. That should never happen."

Under this form of government, Newfarmer said, the process should be clear: Developers who want a new project in the city come to the city administration, headed by the city manager, to be evaluated. The city administration can then forward the plans to city council, which votes on whether to allow the projects to go ahead.

Council should be able to discuss development projects in executive session, Newfarmer said, but the present rules do not allow that.

"Can a council talk to a developer? Yes, of course," Newfarmer said. "But once there is a proposed development on the table, the council member has to tell the developer, 'You have to talk to the administration about that.' There should be no involvement of a council member. Especially when it comes to selling a vote."

As bad as putting money into the pockets of council members is, Newfarmer said, the common practice of council members taking campaign contributions from developers with business before the city "is just as insidious."

"The developers are looking to do their deal under the most favorable terms,'' Newfarmer said. "If they have to contribute to a council campaign, they will do that. The smart ones do."

Clearly, the FBI and the Justice Department has ratcheted up its investigations of corruption in state and local government, Newfarmer said.

Ohio has seen it in the $61 million bribery case involving former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder and others.

When David DeVillers, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, announced the charges against Pastor, he said the case is part of a broader investigation of public corruption in Cincinnati and other Ohio cities – leaving the door open for others to be charged.

Other council members are coming up with their own ideas to address the problem at City Hall.

Council Member Betsy Sundermann, Pastor's fellow Republican on council, has proposed a city charter amendment that would create an internal mechanism to suspend council members accused of impropriety.

"Right now, Mr. Pastor can still show up to work and vote on development deals and that's alarming,'' Sundermann said.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost agrees. At the urging of Mayor John Cranley, Yost has asked the Ohio Supreme Court to suspend Pastor from council as long as the charges are pending. But there is no telling how long that process might take.

A Democratic council member, Greg Landsman, has made his own proposal for the creation of a Cincinnati Ethics Commission that would monitor possible ethics violations and advise council. He also wants training on ethics for council members and a possible charter amendment rewriting the city's campaign finance rules, especially as they regard money from people who do business with the city.

"We have a responsibility to bring about big changes to restore faith in government,'' Landsman said.

Sundermann said the solution is simple.

"People need to stop taking bribes,'' she said.

And council members need to stop talking to developers who have projects on the table. Don't return the phone calls.

"You can't legislate morality,'' Newfarmer said, "but you can clean it up."

This article was first published Nov. 18 and has been updated.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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