Gang of five vs Cincinnati taxpayers

“sophomoric in nature and embarrassing”


Cincinnati City Council members: Wendell Young, P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach and Greg Landsman

According to city records released on March 4, Cincinnati taxpayers will forfeit $101,000 to settle a lawsuit over secret text messages and emails exchanged by five city council members.

The exchange of messages is in violation of Ohio’s Open Meetings Act; a law which requires public bodies in Ohio to conduct all public business in open meetings that the public may attend or observe.

The self-described “Gang of Five,” Wendell Young, P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard, Chris Seelbach and Greg Landsman, admitted to breaking the law by discussing city business through these communications.

The case began in April 2018 when Mark Miller of Coalition Opposed to Additional Taxes and Spending (COAST) filed a lawsuit. Accusing council of holding illegal, secret meetings via email and text messages discussing Mayor John Cranley asking the then City Manager Harry Black to resign in violation of Ohio’s Sunshine Law and the city charter.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters launched a grand jury investigation and sent deputies with subpoenas to City Hall to obtain the Gang’s cell phones.

Deters said an open meetings law violation would only result in fines while the case judge could impose a more serious sentence. Deters also described the texts as “sophomoric in nature and embarrassing”.

At first, a lawyer was appointed by the court at Deters’ request to help prosecutors review the messages once they were downloaded from council members’ phones. The reports were turned over to prosecutors. Then Deters abruptly announced last month he was turning the texts over to Judge Ruehlman.

Ruehlman ordered the Gang to turn over all texts and emails from Jan. 1 through most of October, even ones they exchanged with just one another. In November, a city attorney informed one of the prosecuting attorneys that the messages on Young and Dennard’s phones had been destroyed.

It was reported that Young intentionally deleted his messages from his phone, and Dennard’s were accidentally destroyed when her phone accidentally fell into a pool. Since the lawsuit was filed attorneys for the Gang have released all of the text messages they exchanged in the group string, not ones exchanged between two council members.

Those messages were alarming, with Young calling the mayor a liar and referring to him as “little sucker”. In another, Sittenfeld urged the former city manager to seek counseling.

In other startling messages, Black promised Seelbach he would fix problems with the streetcar if Seelbach would vote to keep Black. Lastly, the Gang also discussed Cranley’s nominee to the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority board and FC Cincinnati’s stadium placement in the West End.

Brian Shrive, one of the attorneys for the anti-tax activist who sued the council for their messages, said, “Through the agreement and the released emails and text messages we have proven every allegation in the complaint and achieved our goal of transparency.” He continued with, “The debates that should have taken place in public will now be available to the public.”

Vice Mayor Smitherman disappointingly commented on the ongoing case by describing it as, “Criminal” and a “Waste of money”. He also frustratingly added that, “It’s unclear why the taxpayer needs to pay the bill. That’s the question. Why are we on the hook for their criminal behavior?”

Records show that the city of Cincinnati issued a total fine in the amount of $101,000 “as a civil forfeiture, statutory damages and payment of reasonable attorneys’ fees,”

This comes on top of $71,963 that the city already spent last year in outside lawyers and a vendor for the five council members. The city’s staff lawyers spent an estimated 450 hours on the case, according to Emily Smart Woerner, chief counsel of litigation in the City Solicitor’s Office.