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Analysis: How P.G. Sittenfeld's political ambitions led him to a criminal trial on bribery charges

 P.G. Sittenfeld walks to U.S. District Court with attorneys Charles H. Rittgers and Charlie M. Rittgers in 2021.
Eric Clajus
P.G. Sittenfeld walks to U.S. District Court with attorneys Charles H. Rittgers and Charlie M. Rittgers in 2021.

The story of former Cincinnati council member P.G. Sittenfeld is heavily laden with irony.

The fact is that if Sittenfeld were not facing a criminal trial in U.S. District Court here stemming from a federal investigation into political corruption at City Hall, he would probably be occupying the corner office at Eighth and Plum Street as Cincinnati's mayor today.

Instead, his lawyers will be in court Tuesday trying to keep him out of prison on charges of honest services wire fraud, bribery and extortion.

The charges have halted dead in the water the ambitions of a politician in a hurry to move up the ladder.

He is accused of falling in with a group of "investors" who told him they wanted to take the vacant, failed 435 Elm Street building off the city's hands and turn it into a hotel and sports betting center. And they were willing to contribute $40,000 to Sittenfeld's supposedly "secret" Super PAC, The Progress and Growth PAC, in exchange for his support for the project.

Then-Cincinnati Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe in action against the Buffalo Bills in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010, in Cincinnati.
Ed Reinke
Then-Cincinnati Bengals safety Chinedum Ndukwe in action against the Buffalo Bills in the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010, in Cincinnati.

As it turned out, though, the "investors" were undercover federal agents. And the man who introduced them to Sittenfeld — Chinedum Ndukwe, the council member's good friend and a former Cincinnati Bengal turned developer — was working for the FBI, because federal prosecutors allegedly had some dirt on Ndukwe and could prosecute him unless he cooperated with the City Hall investigation.

Sittenfeld, who wanted what Ndukwe and the "investors" wanted when it came to 435 Elm, was easily sucked in.

The question to be decided in his trial, which could last for weeks, is whether or not Sittenfeld promised to deliver the votes on council to approve the project in exchange for the $40,000 in contributions to his PAC.

The prosecution will present testimony in the trial saying that Sittenfeld intentionally sought out developers who wanted to do business with the city and hit them up for donations.

And Sittenfeld's lawyers will argue that of course he did; Sittenfeld did nothing that was not standard operating procedure in political campaign fundraising at all levels.

In November 2020, the day after FBI agents arrested him at his home, Sittenfeld took to Twitter to defend himself and proclaim his innocence.

"I am innocent," Sittenfeld said. "The allegations against me are simply not true. The attempt to portray proper assistance to a project bringing jobs and growth to our city that benefits the public is a gross overreach and an injustice."

We have not completely lost our minds in this country; the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law still stands. It must.

This case, though, seems to be a textbook case of political ambition run amuck — aside from the issue of innocence or guilt.

I've been covering politics a very long time. The one thing that binds the thousands of candidates I have written about together is ambition — in some it is a raging fire; in others, it is just one of many motivations.

I have rarely seen ambition burn so brightly as it has in P.G. Sittenfeld. He had his foot on the gas from the first time he ran for city council in 2011 — becoming, at 27, the youngest person ever elected to Cincinnati council — to the day in November 2020 when the FBI agents knocked on his door and put him under arrest.

In 2016, at the age of 32, he baffled the world of Ohio Democratic politics by taking on the former Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, for the U.S. Senate nomination — even though the Ohio Democratic Party had endorsed Strickland in April 2015.

Of course, Sittenfeld lost, taking only 22% of the vote in the March 2016 primary. The only thing he did was, I suppose, make himself known to Democrats in other parts of the state, in the rather vainglorious idea that he would be a legitimate statewide candidate someday.

Who does that? Only Sittenfeld.

Sittenfeld came in first in the 2013 field race for nine council seats and did it again in 2017, by a wide margin.

If you are P.G. Sittenfeld in 2017, after a second first-place finish, you are naturally seeing yourself as the frontrunner to replace a term-limited John Cranley as mayor in 2021. And you start raising money in earnest, including money for your Super PAC, which you use to give generous contributions to the campaigns of other Cincinnati Democratic candidates, in hopes of locking up their support for your mayoral candidacy.

Things are coming up roses for your ambitions until trouble enters the picture in the form of the U.S. Attorney's office, the FBI and your friend Ndukwe, who, unbeknownst to you, is working for the feds.

And, after years of pedal-to-the-metal politics, you find yourself in a world of hurt — the possibility of a prison cell rather than the corner office at 312 Plum Street.

But you may, after this trial, find yourself acquitted of the criminal charges. You've already rejected a plea deal. And, in October of this year, you will be 38 years old. That might be considered old for a Major League Baseball player, but not for a political candidate.

Sometimes, voters are forgiving. He still has plenty of supporters in Cincinnati Democratic circles. It's a stretch, but not out of the question.

Sittenfeld could be back someday, whether he deserves to be or not. And, if not, well — there is that prison cell.
Copyright 2022 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.