Sittenfeld turns down plea deal in corruption case
CINCINNATI — Former Cincinnati City Councilman PG Sittenfeld has turned down a plea deal in his public corruption case that could have faced him with up to two years in prison, or as little as probation without passing time behind bars.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer revealed the rejected plea offer publicly for the first time during a pre-trial conference on Wednesday. Prosecutors offered the deal to Sittenfeld last fall.
Instead, Sittenfeld, a rising Democratic Party star and favorite to win the Cincinnati mayoral race last year before his indictment, will face a jury trial on June 21 on six related counts. corruption, electronic fraud and attempted extortion.
“For the sake of my family, I can’t wait to put this behind me,” Sittenfeld said as he walked into U.S. District Court with his attorneys, Charlie M. Rittgers and father, Charlie H. Rittgers.
While the two-hour preliminary hearing was largely procedural, prosecutors made another revelation: An undercover FBI agent involved in the case received a letter of censure for misconduct.
In court filings last year, lawyers for Sittenfeld accused undercover officers of misconduct, including hosting a party at a rented downtown penthouse where underage young women drank alcohol.
Singer said he asked the FBI for a copy of the censorship letter, but the agency considers it an internal document and will not release it without a court order. Then U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole quickly said he would sign that court order. Censorship will no doubt come to trial.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have already agreed not to release the agents’ real names to the public if they testify.
Cole has set aside four weeks for the high-profile corruption trial and has 80 potential jurors who will appear at the courthouse on June 21.
On Wednesday, lawyers said the trial could take as little as two weeks: likely a week for the prosecution case and three to four days for the defence, which could take longer.
When Cole asked if Sittenfeld planned to testify, he gave his answer in a private conversation with the bench judge.
Cole said he intended to limit the number of interruptions during the trial. He could hold a hearing next week to hear testimony from some witnesses before deciding what jurors will hear.
It will also limit the number of witnesses, primarily developers and business leaders, who can testify subjectively to how Sittenfeld’s past behavior in asking for campaign donations made them feel, unless they’re talking about details.
“We don’t bring in a group of witnesses to say ‘I don’t know’, ‘I kind of felt’ or ‘I had an idea’…we don’t do that, it’s not just,” Cole said.
Cole said he may allow Sittenfeld’s attorneys to play other tapes to the jury that reveal a fuller picture of what their client said to undercover officers, beyond what prosecutors will play in court. But the judge warned he would not allow the jury to listen to another 20 hours of audio; he wants specific examples.
Cole also said he was inclined to let a witness, known as JK, who is a former employee of Sittenfeld, testify at trial over objections from defense attorneys. This is because the witness will not testify about Sittenfeld’s past actions; he will testify about actions that were part of the same alleged scheme or plan.
“It’s uncharged conduct (by JK)…and I think questions can be asked as to why she wasn’t charged,” Cole said.
The judge admitted that it can be difficult to protect the jury from bias that it is somehow unethical or wrong for the candidates to ask for donations to a political action fund, or for the candidates to ask for campaign contributions from people who have business before the city council, because all of that is legal behavior.
This is not a campaign finance violation case, prosecutors have said repeatedly. It’s a corruption charge.
And there is no good faith defense to the allegation, Cole said.
“Even if 95% of the candidates are doing it, maybe that means 95% of the candidates are breaking the law,” Cole said.