Paying Back The Texting Fine: 'I'm Trying My Best To Take Responsibility'

Mar 8, 2019

Response to Thursday's "Gang of Five" texting lawsuit settlement included outrage that the city of Cincinnati will foot the $101,000 bill.

At least four of the Cincinnati council members involved say they intend to pay back their portion of the fine for breaking Ohio's Open Meetings Act.

"I'm trying my best to take responsibility for my piece of this because it was a mistake and I do feel terrible about what has transpired," says Council Member Greg Landsman. He tells WVXU he handed a $200 check over to the city solicitor Friday.

Five Democratic members of Cincinnati Council – Landsman, P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach and Wendell Young – have admitted in the court case that they secretly held meetings via text messages and email. Young also admitted to deleting some texts.

The city was fined $1,000 for the illegal meetings that took place via the five-member text conversation and $10,000 for Young's action. The remaining $90,000 is what Judge Robert Ruehlman assessed as court and attorney fees to be paid to plaintiff Mark Miller's lawyers.

The city will end up paying out $101,000, which includes $11,000 paid to Miller - $1,000 for the illegal meetings and $10,000 for Young's destruction of texts. The remaining $90,000 goes to the Finney Law Firm.

That breaks down to $200 per council member for the fine, plus an additional $10,000 for Young.

Council members Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach and P.G. Sittenfeld say they intend to pay their portions of the fine. WVXU is still waiting to hear from Council Member Wendell Young.

Former city solicitor John Curp, now a partner with Blank Rome, says the city is allowed to accept the council member's payments even though the fine was assessed to the city.

"The ruling was against the city and the council members in their capacity as council members and not them individually," Curp says. "But there's no prohibition [against] any council member from making a payment or contribution to the city that can then be used to pay the fine."

As for the $90,000 in court fees, Curp says, "Under Ohio Law, the award of attorneys fees is entirely discretionary within the authority of the judge ... the council members would be free to make a contribution of any amount they want, but the ultimate determination of the amount and whether that amount is legitimate belongs to the judge."

A city spokesperson tells WVXU any funds the city receives will be considered a reimbursement and would go back to whatever fund they were paid from.

In this case, that would likely be the city's settlement fund.

"I would expect that this settlement comes from the city's settlement fund which is generally a million dollar fund that the solicitor has entirely at her discretion to spend on courtroom settlements," Curp says. "It was likely the same fund that was used to pay Harry Black, as it is to pay any other judicial or threatened legal action against the city."

Harry Black was Cincinnati's former city manager who resigned before he could be fired after a lengthy back-and-forth in the media with Mayor John Cranley - and part of what sparked this lawsuit as the so-called "Gang of Five" discussed the ensuing drama at length in their group messages.  

"That fund exists for this purpose and that money is not used in other places in the city budget, typically," Curp adds.

It's unclear if the council members are able to reimburse the city using dollars from their campaign funds. Curp says campaign funds can be used for "the needs of their city office" but cautions it depends on the individual council member. "You'd have to look specifically at the action and whether or not it advances their council office activities."