For the second time this month, federal prosecutors have announced charges against a sitting member of the Cincinnati City Council for soliciting bribes on projects. One of those projects included an endeavor tied to sports betting.
City Council Member P.G. Sittenfeld was arrested Thursday and charged with accepting eight checks of $5,000 each to a political action committee fund he oversees. That came just nine days after Council Member Jeffrey Pastor appeared before a federal judge. He’s charged with seeking and accepting $55,000 in bribes over a six-month span through February 2019.
The indictments on both council members do not specifically mention the sports betting project. However, Ohio’s Southern District US Attorney David DeVillers revealed details about it during a press conference Thursday.
Former NFL player Chinedum Ndukwe was leading an effort to redevelop the Convention Place Mall in Downtown Cincinnati. His plans called for a hotel and office building that would offer, when legal, sports betting. Both lawmakers wanted money in return for their help in advancing the project.
Federal investigators approached the former Cincinnati Bengal for his assistance. Undercover FBI agents then posed as developers who met with the council members.
Mr. Sittenfeld indicated he could use zoning codes in Cincinnati to create a controlled environment, so project one could have sports gambling to the exclusion of others,” DeVillers said. “So ‘Project One’ could have sports gambling to the exclusion of others. What we’re alleging here is that he defrauded the city of Cincinnati of honest services and was no longer really working for the citizens of Cincinnati.”
While he charged the Democratic Sittenfeld and Republican Pastor with soliciting bribes on the same projects, DeVillers told reporters Thursday that he didn’t see them working in unison.
Local pundits consider Sittenfeld, 36, a rising star in Cincinnati politics. He announced his candidacy for the 2021 race in July.
In the indictment, authorities say Sittenfeld touted to undercover agents that he likely would be Cincinnati’s next mayor. “You like making good bets and good investments,” he told agents before showing them data that showed how popular he was across the southwestern Ohio city.
The sides agreed on giving Sittenfeld $20,000 for help on the project, the court document states. When an agent asked how they should give the money, Sittenfeld proposed either giving 18 separate $1,100 checks under different limited liability corporation names. He then mentioned they could write four checks from four different entities for $5,000 each to another PAC he controlled.
“No one’s like snooping around in who’s giving that there,” the indictment claims Sittenfeld said to the undercover agent. “I mean, I think, frankly, a lot of people don’t even know I have it.”
In a statement Friday, Sittenfeld denied the allegations and said he gave “proper assistance” toward the proposed project.
“I stand strongly on my record of public service, including providing help that’s in the public interest to anyone, whether they have ever made a political contribution to me or not,” he said.
While authorities press ahead with cases against two Cincinnati council members in Cincinnati, the case for sports betting legislation passing the Ohio General Assembly remains unclear. A state Senate committee briefly discussed one of the two bills currently filed, but did not take a vote on it. Meanwhile, a bill that passed the House earlier this year has not had any action on it in the Senate.
Further complicating matters is that three of the four legislators who sponsor the two bills will no longer be in office when the session ends. State Rep. Dave Greenspan (R-Westlake), the primary sponsor of the House bill, and state Sen. Sean O’Brien (D-Bazetta), co-sponsor with state Sen. John Eklund (R-Munson Township) on the Senate bill, both lost their races earlier this month. Eklund will leave because of term limits.
As it stands, the final Ohio House session is scheduled for Dec. 9, although it may hold three more sessions through Dec. 17. The Senate is in session at least through Dec. 17, but may also hold a session as late as Dec. 22.