CINCINNATI -- The front-runner to be Cincinnati’s next mayor was arrested at home this week by federal agents for allegedly accepting $40,000 in bribes, casting his once-bright political future into doubt and further tainting a city council beset by corruption charges.
Alexander Sittenfeld, known as P.G., is charged with two counts each of honest services wire fraud, bribery and attempted extortion, federal prosecutors said.
He is the third member of Cincinnati’s nine-member council to be arrested this year on federal corruption charges.
Prosecutors said Sittenfeld’s arrest is related to a downtown development project that an undercover agent posing as a real estate investor wanted to get off the ground. Sittenfeld faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted, prosecutors said.
Before his arrest, Sittenfeld, 36, represented a new generation of up-and-coming political leaders, said David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati.
“He had a clear path to the mayor’s office. He presented himself as the young, the next, and the newest and the best and the brightest in politics,” Niven said. “He offered what seemed like a new, cleaner politic but obviously the allegations are more of the old.”
As part of an alleged scheme to display his influence, Sittenfeld presented voting data to an undercover agent that showed his political popularity, federal prosecutors said.
Every successful developer and business leader in Cincinnati has “already placed their bets with me,” Sittenfeld, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2016, told undercover agents, according to the indictment. “I can move more votes than any other single person.”
Many of his council colleagues would not argue that point, although it may not matter anymore.
“It’s very sad. I’ve known P.G. and his family for years and I couldn’t be more shocked and stunned and disappointed,” said Councilman David Mann, a Democrat who twice served as mayor.
For his part, Sittenfeld said he is innocent of the charges.
“The allegations against me are simply not true," he tweeted Friday. "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. I stand strongly on my record of public service.”
He did not return phone calls seeking further comment.
Sittenfeld’s arrest comes after former Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard, 40, a Democrat, pleaded guilty in June to honest services wire fraud.
In 2019, Dennard, a first-term councilwoman, allegedly engaged in acts and attempted acts of bribery and extortion while trying to exchange her votes for money, according to federal prosecutors.
She faces up to 20 years in prison and fines and restitution for allegedly requesting between $10,000 and $15,000 from an individual to pay for her expenses, NBC 5 in Cincinnati reported.
Months went by and City Hall was seemingly starting a new chapter when the page flipped to Republican Councilman Jeff Pastor, 36. Federal agents charged him last week with a 10-count indictment for bribery, extortion, money laundering and fraud.
Prosecutors claim he solicited and received $55,000 in bribes from August 2018 to February 2019 in exchange for promised official action related to projects before the council. Pastor pleaded not guilty.
“The city of Cincinnati has now been brought to its knees. We need drastic reform unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the history of this city,” Hamilton County Republican Chairman Alex Triantafilou tweeted. “The voters of this city must make serious changes in 2021, and they need to understand how truly broken City Hall has become.”
Sittenfeld was arrested after a federal grand jury charged him this week in a sealed indictment.
“Three out of nine of us are indicted, it’s insane. I’m glad it's getting solved and people are going down for it,” said Councilwoman Betsy Sundermann, a Republican. “I think he should resign. We can’t have him proposing legislation and voting on things if he took bribes.
“They (residents) don’t trust any of us, and I understand why they don’t trust any of us," she added. "They think that government is dirty. It’s going to take a lot or rebuilding trying to fix this.”
Just three days before Sittenfeld’s arrest, Sundermann had announced plans to amend the city charter to allow for the removal of any council member charged with a felony or displaying unethical behavior.
“Our city charter does not have any provision in it to remove a council member for unethical behavior,” Sundermann said. “You can be a council member and get convicted of murdering 10 people and still not be kicked off city council. That’s a big problem.”
She said she needs 15,000 signatures to get the amendment proposal on the November 2021 ballot after she officially brings it before city council members.
Sittenfeld, a Democrat who graduated from Princeton University, was born and raised in Cincinnati. After college, he was awarded a Marshall Scholarship for graduate studies at Oxford University, according to his council member page on the city’s website. He is serving his third term.
After announcing his run for mayor, he was endorsed by unions and most community leaders and raised $700,000 for his campaign, making him the undisputed frontrunner in next year's election.
Federal officials allege Sittenfeld accepted eight checks totaling $40,000 dating back to 2018 in exchange for “specific action” in his role as a city official. He solicited and received the money through a federally regulated political action committee he organized and controlled in connection with the supposed development, federal officials said.
The payments, which he requested on multiple occasions, were for a downtown property the city of Cincinnati owned, which was later transferred to the Cincinnati Port Authority, prosecutors said.
An undercover agent acting as a real estate investor had wanted to develop the property for years, but could not move forward without council approval, according to the indictment.
In November and December 2018, Sittenfeld promised he could “deliver the votes” in city council to support a development project in exchange for four $5,000 contributions to his PAC, prosecutors said. He accepted the checks in September and October 2019, they said.
Over the next several months, Sittenfeld allegedly told the investors he would apply additional pressure to public officials relating to the development project.
Councilman Mann, 81, said the city prides itself on good government and was one of the first in the nation to adopt a city-manager form of government. Even the son of a U.S. president once served as mayor, Charles Taft, whose father was former President William Taft, he said.
Mann, the mayor of Cincinnati in 1981 and 1991, is running against Sittenfeld in next year’s mayoral race.
“All of us have to remember what this is supposed to be about, it’s serving the public and greater good, and how we went down this path I don’t know," Mann said. "It’s inconsistent with the history of this community in my experience.”
Niven, the political science professor, said the slew of charges against council members may have caused residents to lose trust in those they once supported.
“There’s an enormous pressure on the remaining members of council,” Niven said. “The lesson that the community would rightly take is a cynical one. It almost doesn’t matter who you vote for, their service to you may not be honest. And that’s a sad conclusion.”