On June 30, 2020, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio filed a criminal complaint charging four Toledo City Councilmembers and a local attorney for their participation in an alleged years-long bribery and extortion scheme. These charges add to a long line of public corruption cases brought by federal prosecutors in Ohio over the last decade, including prosecutions in the Cleveland and Cincinnati areas. In Cleveland, more than 70 government officials and individuals who dealt with the Cuyahoga County government were convicted from 2008 through 2016. More recently, Cincinnati City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud.
The Toledo Complaint, which details alleged misconduct by at least one Councilmember dating back to 2013, paints a picture of multiple local officials willing to trade their votes on zoning decisions and other legislation in exchange for payments ranging from $300 to $5,000. Councilmembers Tyrone Riley, Yvonne Harper, Garrick “Gary” Johnson, and Larry Sykes, along with attorney Keith Mitchell, were each charged with violations of 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(B) (Theft or bribery concerning programs receiving Federal funds) and 18 U.S.C. § 1951 (Interference with commerce by threats or violence), with Harper additionally charged for allegedly violating 18 U.S.C. § 875(d) (Interstate communication of a threat to injure property or reputation).
According to the Complaint, the federal investigation began in March of 2018 and it appears to come straight out of the playbook that DOJ used in Cleveland and Cincinnati.
Federal agents interviewed an individual who had been arrested for living in the U.S. illegally. That individual, referenced as SOURCE 1 in the Complaint, provided information regarding a payment she/he had made to Councilman Riley in 2013 in exchange for Riley’s anticipated support in preventing a competing business from opening near SOURCE 1’s gas station. In May of 2018, under the direction of the FBI, SOURCE 1 re-approached Riley about obtaining his support for a new special use permit. Riley brought a middleman along to a lunch meeting with SOURCE 1 where they discussed the permit. After conferring alone with Riley, the middleman indicated to SOURCE 1 that Riley’s support for the permit would cost $2,000. By December of 2018 the FBI had approached the middleman and secured his/her cooperation as SOURCE 2 in the investigation.
Over the course of the next 18 months SOURCE 1 and SOURCE 2 made or facilitated almost $35,000 in payments to Riley, Johnson, Sykes, Harper, and Mitchell for their anticipated support of a series of zoning decisions, and a legislative moratorium on internet cafes in Toledo. Along the way, Harper pressured SOURCE 1 to make a direct payment of $2,500 to a constituent from her district, after an employee of a business at a building owned by SOURCE 1 used racial slurs when interacting with the constituent.
Each of the five individuals named in the Complaint has been arrested and released on unsecured bond while awaiting trial on the charges. A conviction on both 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(B) and 18 U.S.C. § 1951 could carry prison sentences of up to 30 years, as well as fines of up to $250,000. Harper could face another two years in prison for her additional charge under 18 U.S.C. § 875(d).
The charges in Toledo came about a month after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the New Jersey Bridgegate case, Kelly v. United States, in which the Court again endorsed a narrow application of federal criminal law to misconduct by public officials. The Supreme Court reiterated that fraudulent schemes by public officials do not necessarily violate federal law unless the aim of the scheme(s) is to obtain money or property. Unlike the public officials in Kelly who apparently were motivated by politics and not money or property, the Toledo Councilmembers’ alleged conduct in accepting bribes and extorting other payments may fit within the category of “fraudulent schemes…for obtaining money or property.” Given that the Supreme Court has narrowly construed federal criminal laws in recent years, however, it remains to be seen whether the Toledo Councilmember defendants will be able to rely upon the more lenient Kelly decision in their cases.