Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld on Wednesday took a procedural first step in his legal fight against federal corruption charges as his attorney filed a motion to dismiss the case against him.
The suspended council member has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and his attorney Charlie Rittgers has disputed key parts of the case brought by David DeVillers, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.
The charges in U.S. District Court allege Sittenfeld accepted 10 checks totaling $40,000 from undercover FBI agents in 2018 and 2019. Sittenfeld is accused of promising favorable action in council related to a potential sports betting venue at 435 Elm Street downtown in exchange for the checks.
"I can sit here and say, I can deliver the votes," Sittenfeld's indictment alleges he told undercover agents in a recorded conversation related to that development.
Federal authorities say Sittenfeld instructed undercover FBI agents to set up LLCs to make donations and then diverted the money to a PAC he controlled. He used the donations to build campaign funds for the 2021 mayoral election, a race in which many observers believed he was the favorite prior to his arrest.
Rittgers, however, maintains that conversations included in the indictment were "cherry-picked;" that Sittenfeld's PAC was set up in accordance with campaign finance laws; that he did not illegally control it; and that information about the money Sittenfeld received was available via public filings.
"The factual allegations show that Mr. Sittenfeld did not engage in any quid pro quo agreement," Sittenfeld's 20-page filing reads. "He did not promise to exchange official actions for political contributions or understand that he was expected to alter his official conduct because of those contributions. To the contrary, Mr. Sittenfeld affirmed his widely known, longstanding pro-development positions in the same conversations where undercover agents, posing as investors in an attempted sting, offered or provided contributions to his lawful, federally regulated political action committee. His alleged conduct is not a crime; it is a core feature of our democratic system. Accordingly, the charges must be dismissed."
After a lengthy investigation over the last two years, a federal grand jury agreed to charge Sittenfeld with two counts each of honest service wire fraud, bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds and attempted extortion by a government official. Federal agents arrested him at his home Nov. 19.
The arrest sent shockwaves through City Hall. Sittenfeld is the third city council member to be arrested on corruption charges this year.
Federal agents arrested Council Member Jeff Pastor just nine days prior to Sittenfeld. Pastor allegedly solicited $55,000 from the same developer involved in Sittenfeld's case, former Cincinnati Bengal Chinedum Ndukwe. DeVillers has said that Ndukwe was working with the FBI on both investeigations, but that Pastor and Sittenfeld's cases are otherwise unrelated.
Pastor has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.
Federal agents arrested former Council Member Tamaya Dennard in February on unrelated corrpution charges. She resigned from council in March and pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud June 29 in connection to money she solicited from a whistleblower working with the FBI for favorable votes on riverfront development at The Banks. A federal judged sentenced Dennard to 18 months in federal prison Nov. 24.
Sittenfeld has not resigned from his council seat, but he did on Dec. 7 accept a suspension initiated by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. Ohio law dictated that Hamilton County Probate Court Judge Ralph Winkler pick Sittenfeld's replacement. Winkler chose Republican Liz Keating for the seat.
Had Sittenfeld stepped down, his Democratic colleagues on council would have been able to select who replaced him.
In Wednesday's filing, Sittenfeld's attorney asked for a Feb. 22 hearing on the motion to dismiss.