Updated: 1:32 p.m.
A third Cincinnati City Council member this year has been arrested and accused of taking bribes in exchange for favorable votes on development projects. The FBI says Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld was arrested at his home Thursday morning after accepting $40,000 in bribes.
Officials said during a press conference that Sittenfeld solicited bribes from a developer and accepted checks from undercover FBI agents from 2018 to 2019. He received 10 checks — ripping up two of them that didn't properly go along with his scheme — in exchange for "official actions" on City Council.
Sittenfeld is charged with two counts each of honest services wire fraud, bribery and attempted extortion by a government official. He was represented by attorney Diane Menashe in court Thursday afternoon and pled not guilty to the charges. Sittenfeld has been released on bond.
David DeVillers, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, announced the indictment Thursday morning.
"He performed official actions in return for those checks, promising to deliver votes in the City Council, promising to pursue specific action to advance Project 1, and to pressure other public officials to commit official actions to benefit Project 1," DeVillers said.
Sittenfeld is also accused of promising to use city zoning codes to promise sports gambling at Project 1, excluding other locations.
"The other part of the scheme was to hide the proceeds — to hide the income coming in to go to the benefit of Mr. Sittenfeld via his political career," DeVillers said.
Sittenfeld reportedly told agents to make donations to a PAC he was secretly controlling. He told them to create and use different LLCs to help hide where the money was coming from.
"I realize this is the third city council person that's been indicated by us this year," DeVillers said. "Again, we don't see a relationship between Mr. Pastor and Mr. Sittenfeld other than they were drinking from the same cup, if you will."
Sittenfeld is indeed the third City Council member to be accused of creating a pay-to-play scheme this year. Just last week, Council Member Jeff Pastor was charged after officials say he took $55,000 in bribes for a similar scheme. Former Council Member Tamaya Dennard was arrested in February and pled guilty to honest services wire fraud this summer.
Officials said Sittenfeld's case is different than Pastor and Dennard because he didn't directly pocket the bribe money. Instead, he asked that the money be donated to a PAC, which officials declined to name.
Chris Hoffman, special agent in charge with the FBI, is the special agent in the case.
He said public corruption is the top criminal priority at the FBI right now, in part because the agency is uniquely positioned to investigate the cases.
"It's also because it undermines the trust and confidence in our system of government," he said. The citizens of Cincinnati have to be wondering right now, 'How can that trust be restored when one-third of City Council has been arrested this year for bribery and extortion, honest services cases?"
He said Sittenfeld was funding a "war chest" for later political endeavors.
Sittenfeld launched a mayoral run in July and was considered by many to be the frontrunner in the race.
Councilman David Mann, who is also running for mayor, says Sittenfeld needs to resign. He says that's consistent with his calls for Tamaya Dennard and Jeff Pastor to step down after their arrests.
"It's absolutely stunning," Mann says. "I've known P.G. and his family forever, it seems. It's very sad. I'm just sick about it."
He says there is now a "tremendous challenge" to restore confidence in the integrity of council.
On Wednesday, Mann introduced a motion to change the way development agreements are negotiated. His proposal seeks to remove council members from the process. Council members Greg Landsman and Betsy Sundermann also introduced proposals this week.
"At the end of the day," Mann says, "it all comes down to the personal integrity of the individual members of council. If their values are committed to the ideal of public service for the better good, these things aren't going to happen anyway no matter what the rules are."
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chair Gwen McFarlin says in a statement that public confidence in government has been "shaken."
"The allegations raised against P.G. are significant and serious," she writes. "Councilmember Sittenfeld deserves the due process afforded to all our citizens and should be able to respond to these charges brought against him. If the allegations are true, Mr. Sittenfeld should step down from elected office."
WVXU Reporter Tana Weingartner contributed to this report.
Read the full indictment below.