Opinion: Jeff Pastor should cut a plea deal in corruption case

·5 min read

Take a deal.

That's good advice for former Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Pastor who is awaiting trial on federal corruption charges. Assuming a deal from prosecutors is still on the table and he can even find a lawyer.

I spoke with one local attorney who said if he were representing Pastor, he would have already sat down with U.S. Attorney Ken Parker to cut a deal.

"Two of the three council people charged (with corruption) have been convicted," he said. "You should be thinking about a plea at this point."

Pastor, who previously said he would not cut a plea deal, should be very concerned about his odds of getting an acquittal after P.G. Sittenfeld's conviction on Friday and Tamaya Dennard's in 2020. Sittenfeld, a former councilman and front-runner for mayor, was found guilty of bribery and attempted extortion charges. He could face up to 3.5 years in prison, according to a sentencing expert.

More: Editorial: Sittenfeld trial exposed ugly underbelly of Cincinnati politics

If Sittenfeld couldn't beat the rap, it's doubtful Pastor will fare any better, especially given the mountain of evidence the feds have on him. Sittenfeld turned down a plea offer, which in retrospect was pretty sweet, because he couldn't bring himself to admit he'd done anything wrong. Pastor shouldn't make the same mistake.

The public's interest is better served by a trial where the people can learn all the details of the sordid affair, who all was involved and the full extent of the corrupt activity. The Sittenfeld trial uncovered a lot of previously unknown facts about the crooked politics and self-dealing at play at 801 Plum Street. And I'm an advocate for the public getting the whole truth.

But for his own sake, Pastor should consider a deal if he can get it. Though at this point, federal prosecutors might be disinclined to offer Pastor anything, instead opting for a big win after getting somewhat roughed up during the Sittenfeld trial.

Cincinnati City Council member Jeff Pastor looks on during at a City Council Budget and Finance meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, at City Hall in downtown Cincinnati.
Cincinnati City Council member Jeff Pastor looks on during at a City Council Budget and Finance meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020, at City Hall in downtown Cincinnati.

His bribery scheme involving payoffs for help with city development projects was even more brazen than Sittenfeld's, according to federal investigators. They allege Pastor, a Republican who joined council in January 2018, began soliciting money from developers within months of taking office and, in some instances, accepted bags of cash in return for his vote or other favorable treatment.

Prosecutors say Pastor received a total of $55,000 in bribes since taking office. He traveled via private airplane to Miami, Florida in September 2018, the indictment states, to meet with investors related to proposed business projects. Pastor never paid for the two-day trip and did not disclose the trip, documents say. He also allegedly used various nonprofit entities to "sanitize" or launder the bribes he was accepting.

"Sometimes, the cash was literally handed to Pastor," U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said at the time of the indictment. "Some of the things are so brazen."

More: Opinion: Step down, Councilman Pastor – you betrayed us

Ken Parker, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, stands in his office on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Downtown Cincinnati.
Ken Parker, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, stands in his office on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Downtown Cincinnati.

The charges against Pastor include bribery, money laundering, extortion, wire fraud, theft of honest services and conspiracy. If convicted, he faces more than 20 years in prison.

The local attorney I spoke to said if Pastor does move forward with his trial, it's possible that Sittenfeld's attorneys did a good enough job of casting aspersions on the FBI's sting tactics that it could help Pastor's defense.

"If you look closely at the verdict, the jury did not like a lot of the FBI sting operation. They had a real distaste for the FBI tactics," he said. "I think that might make the call for Jeff (about a plea) a little tougher."

Former councilwoman Tamaya Dennard was the first of the three to be arrested in February of 2020 on accusations of a pay-to-play scheme in which she sold a vote related to The Banks riverfront project. Rather than roll the dice at trial, Dennard pleaded guilty in November 2020 to a honest services wire fraud. While bad decision-making landed Dennard in hot water, she wised up by making a plea and getting an 18-month sentence. She was scheduled to be fully released on June 12.

Perhaps Dennard recognized a couple of things Sittenfeld and Pastor didn't. First, the importance of accepting responsibility for poor choices, which certainly helped her at sentencing time. Second, trials are rare in the federal criminal justice system, and acquittals are even rarer.

A Pew Research Center analysis found that fewer than one percent of federal defendants went to trial and won their case. Ninety percent of federal defendants enter guilty pleas, according to Pew. In other words, when trials happen in federal court, most end in convictions. I imagine chances of an acquittal drop even more sharply for Black defendants, given that they are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites.

Jeff Pastor and his wife Tara  at their North Avondale home, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.
Jeff Pastor and his wife Tara at their North Avondale home, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020.

After Pastor's arrest and indictment, his then-attorney Ben Dusing said Pastor chose to go to trial because of the "facts and the law" and Pastor had "confidence in the legal system."

While Pastor's alleged crimes are egregious, his circumstances are a lot more sympathetic than Sittenfeld's. Much like Dennard, Pastor was having trouble making ends meet with a wife and four kids. And unlike Sittenfeld, a Princeton and Oxford graduate who planned to be mayor, Pastor came from a tough background to make something of himself. All factors that would likely earn him some grace during sentencing if he accepted culpability.

More: Jeff Pastor's incredible journey to Cincinnati City Council

Any prison time is going to be devastating, especially for guys like Sittenfeld and Pastor. And rebuilding a life and reputation after a prison term is no easy feat. So I understand the need to exhaust every option to preserve your freedom.

Pastor himself has been relatively quiet since being charged, but did post a statement on Facebook in January. He thanked his supporters and talked about not letting anyone "run over you or the people you love."

"Plainly speaking my mother didn't raise a hoe," Pastor wrote.

Let's hope she didn't raise a fool either.

Take a deal.

Opinion and Engagement Editor Kevin S. Aldridge can be reached at kaldridge@enquirer.com. Twitter: @kevaldrid.

Kevin Aldridge, opinion editor for The Enquirer. Photo shot Thursday June 16, 2022.
Kevin Aldridge, opinion editor for The Enquirer. Photo shot Thursday June 16, 2022.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Opinion: Jeff Pastor should cut a plea deal in corruption case