The Southern District of Ohio, where interstate highways stretching from the southern tip of Florida enter the southwestern point of Ohio, usually and understandably boasts a steady stream of interstate drug trafficking cases. Since 2019, however, the District has prosecuted a growing number of public corruption cases as well. In that short time, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio has become Ohio’s Chief Public Corruption Officer. These prosecutions show that a core group of Southern Ohio federal prosecutors and investigating agents have used time-tested covert investigative techniques to bring to light alleged schemes by state and local public officials to obtain bribes from property development, construction and energy companies in need of government contracts, approvals and assistance.
The Investigations and Prosecutions
First came Dayton. On April 25, 2019, Joey Williams, a member of the Dayton City Commission, was charged with bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(B), and Roshawn Winburn was charged with wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343. Multiple Dayton businesspeople were also charged in connection with the scheme. The indictments alleged that Commissioner Williams solicited home remodeling services from a company at a lower rate than usual. In exchange, Commissioner Williams promised to provide the remodeling and construction company with city contracts. The indictments alleged that Mr. Winburn, Dayton’s Director of the Minority Business Assistance Center, devised the scheme. Five months later, Commissioner Williams pleaded guilty to corruptly soliciting a bribe and, on January 30, 2020, and was sentenced to 12 months in prison. Mr. Winburn, in turn, pleaded guilty on February 11, 2020 for corruptly soliciting a bribe and was sentenced to six months in prison. According to the charges, a confidential informant recorded incriminating conversations with Commissioner Williams, which undoubtedly was a significant factor in his and Mr. Winburn’s decisions to plead guilty.
Next came Cincinnati. In 2020, three members of the Cincinnati City Council were indicted on public corruption charges. One of them has pleaded guilty. All three cases involved the use of confidential informants and victim property development companies. Two involved undercover agents.
On March 11, 2020, Tamaya Dennard, a member of the Cincinnati City Council, was charged with federal program fraud, wire and honest services fraud, and extortion in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 666, 1343, 1346, and 1951. Councilwoman Dennard solicited and received money from a confidential informant, who was a Cincinnati attorney. Councilwoman Dennard offered to take public action to assist one of the attorney’s clients in exchange for the bribe. On June 29, Councilwoman Dennard pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud. On November 24, she was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
On November 4, 2020, Jeffrey Pastor, another member of the Cincinnati City Council, was charged with bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, honest services wire fraud, conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud, and extortion and attempted extortion in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 666(a)(1)(B), 1343, 1346, 1349, 1951, and 1956. This investigation used a confidential informant but also used at least one undercover agent. The indictment alleged that Councilman Pastor solicited and received bribes from a Cincinnati property developer who was acting as a confidential informant and an undercover agent posing as the informant’s business partner. The alleged scheme was that the developer and business partner would pay a bribe in exchange for official acts and votes approving a Cincinnati development project owned by the confidential informant. On November 10, Councilman Pastor pleaded not guilty and the case is ongoing.
On November 18, 2020, a third member of the Cincinnati City Council, Alexander “P.G.” Sittenfeld, was charged with bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, attempted extortion, and honest services wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§666(a)(1)(B), 1343, 1346, and 1951. The indictment alleged that Councilman Sittenfeld solicited and received funds in exchange for official acts and votes approving the same development project involved in Mr. Pastor’s indictment. The indictment further alleged that the same confidential informant and three undercover agents, who posed as the same informant’s business partners, collected incriminating information from Councilman Sittenfeld. On November 19, Councilman Sittenfeld pleaded not guilty and the case is ongoing.
Last is the Ohio House of Representatives. On July 30, 2020, Larry Householder, now the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, and five other defendants – including non-profit corporations and lobbyists – were charged with racketeering, bribery, extortion and related crimes. The charges arose out of an energy company’s payment of approximately $60 million over three years to a 501(c)(4) entity allegedly for the purposes of influencing Ohio legislators to pass a $1.5 billion-dollar nuclear plant bailout and then to defeat a ballot initiative to overturn the bailout. According to the indictment, a confidential informant assisted the government in the investigation. Mr. Householder and his codefendants have pleaded not guilty and the case is ongoing.
There are several common elements and lessons to be drawn from these cases. First, by developing evidence sufficient to indict at least six state and local current and former public officials, the prosecutors in the Southern District of Ohio have exposed a serious alleged pay-to-play public corruption problem in Ohio. The United States Attorney for the Southern District Ohio has stated in press conferences that public corruption is a focus of the Department of Justice. That focus is clear from these indictments.
Second, taking a page from the Abscam investigation and prosecutions 40 years ago – which inspired the 2013 movie American Hustle – the investigators first cultivated confidential informants and apparently persuaded them to make tape recordings of their conversations with the defendant public officials. In the Pastor and Sittenfeld investigations, the government eventually introduced the public officials to government agents acting in an undercover capacity, who also recorded their interactions. When cases are made using the public officials’ own words, it is very difficult for them to avoid conviction unless they are able to establish the rarely successful defense of entrapment. To succeed on the defense, the public official must demonstrate that the government “induced” him to commit the charged offense and then the government must fail to “prove beyond [a] reasonable doubt that the defendant was disposed to commit the criminal act prior to first being approached by Government agents.” Jacobsen v. United States, 503 U.S. 540, 549 (1992).
Third, these prosecutions should serve as a reminder to all Ohio public officials of one of the most important things they were taught early in their careers: Don’t say anything you would be embarrassed to see on the front page of your local newspaper. Or quoted in an indictment or U.S. Attorney’s press release.