Hamilton County Appoints Special Prosecutor To Investigate 'Gang Of Five'

Dec 19, 2019

Updated 2 p.m.

A special prosecutor is being appointed to investigate five Cincinnati council members for violating Ohio's Open Meetings Act.

The action comes upon the recommendation of Ohio Auditor Keith Faber who reviewed the actions of the five council members: Tamaya Dennard, Greg Landsman, Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld and Wendell Young, the prosecutor's office says.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters Thursday afternoon named Patrick J. Hanley, a Cincinnati lawyer who specializes in white collar criminal defense, as the special prosecutor.

Hanley could present evidence to a grand jury to see if it will return indictments against the five council members.

"If Hanley chooses to use a grand jury he can compel testimony, uncover more evidence if there is any," Deters says.

Deters says his office and the Cincinnati City Solicitor's office will not be involved in the case.

The five admitted to violating the act earlier this year. The case stems from text messages exchanged between the group in 2018 in which they discussed and made decisions about city business. The city paid $101,000 to settle the case, including $90,000 for plaintiff attorneys fees and $11,000 for fines.

The city also spent $75,000 for two outside law firms to handle the case against the council members until the city solicitor's office resumed representing them.

Deters and Faber are Republicans and the council members are all Democrats.

According to the prosecutor's office, the report from the state auditor lists the potential violation as Dereliction of Duty.

From the auditor's report:

Dereliction of Duty: From on or about January 19, 2018, until on or about March 24, 2018, P.G. SITTENFELD, CHRIS SEELBACH, GREG LANDSMAN, TAMAYA DENNARD and WENDELL YOUNG, public servants serving as elected officers of a political subdivision, recklessly failed to perform a duty expressly imposed by law with respect to the public servant's office, or recklessly did an act expressly forbidden by law with respect to the public servant's office, to wit: took official action and conducted deliberations upon official business by a majority of the public body, outside of the requirements of the City of Cincinnati Charter and the Open Meetings Act which requires such actions to be done only in open meetings, such actions constituting the offense of Dereliction of Duty, in violation of Ohio Revised Code Section 2921.44(E), a misdemeanor of the second degree.

Does Deters think there's a likelihood of the investigation leading to a prosecution? "I think there's a probability of that, yes. And I think that's going to be an assessment that Pat Hanley's going to have to make. I think it's a decision that based on the evidence that we had at the time, we thought Judge Ruhlman was going to take care of it."

Judge Robert Ruehlman in March said the five council members should resign and reimburse what the city spent on their behalf. None of them have resigned. Some have made payments to the city.

Dereliction of Duty is a second degree misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $750. Deters indicates he doubts the lawmakers would actually be ordered to serve time if the case were to trial and guilt verdicts returned.

Hanley will be paid $250 per hour by the City of Cincinnati. Deters says he doesn't know how long the investigation could take.

The council members aren't commenting on Thursday's announcement.

The Hamilton County Democratic Party issued a statement suggesting State Auditor Keith Faber's actions are politically motivated:

"Local elected Republican officials put this issue to bed nearly a year ago, and now the Republican State Auditor - who is Trump's reelection 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. Hamilton County residents care about good paying jobs and infrastructure improvements, not hyper-partisan shenanigans. It's time to move on."

Deters says accusations the actions taken by the state auditor and his office are not politically motivated.