CINCINNATI — Attorneys took nearly six hours Tuesday to choose a jury in the public corruption trial of former Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, weeding out many who had personal hardships, political biases, ties to possible witnesses, or those who had watched extensive media coverage of the high-profile case or already decided his guilt or innocence.
Now the jury of 12, together with the four alternate jurors, will hear opening statements on Wednesday at U.S. District Court in downtown Cincinnati.
Then they will hear from the prosecution’s first witness: former council member Kevin Flynn, who served with Sittenfeld from 2013 to 2017 at City Hall and will provide a general backdrop of city government and how development deals work.
“Politics. This case involves politics, everyone’s favorite topic,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer said, before he asked potential jurors whether they had contributed to a campaign, hosted a candidate fundraiser or attended a political rally.
“I have thoughts about one political party and they’re not particularly positive,” answered one potential juror, who was later struck from the jury pool by U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Cole.
Potential jurors were drawn from as far away as Lawrence County, which borders West Virginia. The federal court district spans 10 counties stretching along Ohio’s southern border into the rural farmlands of Adams, Brown, Clinton, Highland and Scioto counties, and the more suburban areas in Butler, Clermont, Hamilton and Warren counties.
In all, Cole struck 23 potential jurors either for personal hardships or valid cause reasons, including one who said he believed Sittenfeld was “guilty based on what he had read.” Then attorneys removed an additional 19 potential jurors, who they did not consider as being favorable to their side of the case.
Sittenfeld, who has maintained his innocence, was a rising political star and the front-runner to be the next mayor of Cincinnati before FBI agents arrested him for allegedly promising support and “official acts,” to help the development of Convention Place downtown in exchange for $40,000 in donations to his political action fund in November 2020.
He faces six charges related to public corruption at trial, including bribery and attempted extortion and roughly five to six years in prison if convicted.
The media listened to jury selection from an overflow conference room, so WCPO was not able to see the jury makeup. That will happen on Wednesday morning when the courtroom is open to the public.
Attorneys also revealed a 48-person possible witness list, which Cole read to the potential jurors in case they knew any of them. A few were excused from the jury pool because they attended Crossroads Church and knew Pastor Brian Tome, who is a possible witness for Sittenfeld.
Witnesses for the prosecution include:
- Former Cincinnati City Councilman Kevin Flynn
- Former Cincinnati Economic Development Director Phil Denning, who is now an executive vice president at the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority.
- FBI Special Agent Nathan Holbrook
- Former Cincinnati Bengal turned real estate developer Chinedum Ndukwe, who is a cooperating witness.
- Jay Kincaid, a political consultant and former chief of staff for former Mayor John Cranley.
- Jared Kamrass, a political fundraiser who worked with both Sittenfeld and Cranley.
- Claire McKenna, a certified public accountant.
- Laura Brunner, president of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority which owns the Convention Place property at the heart of the case.
- Chris Cicchinelli, CEO of Pure Romance.
- David Spaulding, vice president and general manager of Turner Construction.
- Jeff Berding, co-CEO of FC Cincinnati.
Court filings reveal that prosecutors will call developers and business people to testify about the “heavy-handed” way they say Sittenfeld asked for campaign donations, and the pressure they felt to give him money.
The judge asked attorneys how long the trial would last, since it is pushing up against a July Fourth holiday weekend. Prosecutors said their case would last for one week. Then Sittenfeld’s attorney Charlie Rittgers said it is possible that attorneys could give closing arguments as soon as June 30, which calls into question whether he will put on a defense case.
Since Sittenfeld is presumed innocent, he does not need to testify or put on any witnesses. Legal experts say it may be a wise strategy for him not to testify if prosecutors have a weak case and Rittgers can question their witnesses strongly enough through cross-examination to give jurors doubts.
On the other hand, legal experts say if prosecutors do have a vigorous case, it may be better for Sittenfeld to tell his side of the story from the witness stand. Usually, defense attorneys do not make this decision until they see all of the government’s case.
Defense attorneys have a lengthy list of 36 people who could testify for Sittenfeld. They include:
- Former Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Seelbach.
- Former deputy city solicitor Luke Blocher.
- Interim Cincinnati City Manager John Curp.
- Michael Fisher, former president and CEO of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
- Steve Leeper, president and CEO of Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC).
- Dan Schimberg, president of Uptown Rental Properties.
- Peg Wyant, president and CEO of Grandin Properties.
- Clare Blankmeyer, executive director of Greenlight Cincinnati Fund.
- Dan Meyer, founder and CEO of Nehemiah Manufacturing.
- Matt Alter, president of Cincinnati Fire Fighters Union Local 48.
- Mike Burke, owner of Zips Café.
- Cincinnati police officer Donald Jordan.
- Montgomery Mayor Chris Dobrozsi
Opening statements will likely begin at 9:15 a.m. on Wednesday.