Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Pastor arrested on federal bribery charge

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FBI agents arrested Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Pastor early Tuesday in what authorities describe as a brazen bribery scheme involving payoffs for help with city development projects.

Federal prosecutors say Pastor, a Republican who joined council in January 2018, began soliciting money from developers within months of taking office and, in some instances, accepted bags of cash in return for his vote or other favorable treatment.

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A friend of Pastor’s, Tyran Marshall, also faces federal charges and is described by prosecutors as “a middleman” who arranged for some payments and set up a charitable nonprofit through which Pastor funneled bribes.

Prosecutors say undercover FBI agents posing as developers used electronic surveillance and at least two whistleblowers to unravel the pay-to-play scheme, which included a trip to Miami with a developer and solicitations by Pastor for cash, investment opportunities and jobs.

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Throughout the investigation, prosecutors say, Pastor suggested dollar amounts for the bribes and directed the agents on how to pay them.

“Sometimes, the cash was literally handed to Pastor,” said U.S. Attorney David DeVillers, who will lead the prosecution. “Some of the things are so brazen.”

He said Pastor, who is accused of collecting $55,000 in bribes, at one point told the undercover agents he should be paid $200,000 for his help and sought a “monthly retainer” for his continuing assistance.

The charges against Pastor and Marshall include bribery, money laundering, extortion, wire fraud, theft of honest services and conspiracy. If convicted, they face more than 20 years in prison.

Pastor was in federal custody Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. But when The Enquirer asked him in July about his relationship with developers, including some of the allegations that would later turn up in the criminal charges, Pastor said he never took a bribe.

Reaction to Pastor’s arrest was swift. State and local Republican Party leaders called for the councilman to resign immediately.

“Once a public trust is broken, a public official should resign,” said Jane Timken, chairwoman of the Ohio GOP.

Pastor is the second city council member this year charged with taking bribes from developers. Tamaya Dennard, a Democrat, resigned from council in February after her arrest on fraud and bribery charges.

Dennard’s case is unrelated to Pastor’s, but DeVillers said both arrests speak to “a culture of corruption” that’s tolerated in city government. He said the investigation that resulted in the charges against Pastor and Dennard are ongoing and are part of a broader campaign to uproot public corruption in Cincinnati and other Ohio communities.

“We are concerned about this almost acceptance that this is how it’s done,” DeVillers said. “We’re going to prosecute those cases. Our goal is to make people nervous and stop them from doing this.”

At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, DeVillers said the investigation isn’t over and more people could be charged. “We have a way to go,” he said. “We still have some prosecutions to do.”

The investigation began in August 2018, eight months after Pastor joined council, and ended in February 2019. By that time, DeVillers said, Pastor had accepted $55,000 from undercover FBI agents, most in cash but some through Ummah Strength, the nonprofit prosecutors say Pastor and Marshall used to launder money.

The indictment against Pastor quotes him saying he needed the nonprofit to “sanitize” the money.

According to prosecutors and the indictment, the agents posing as developers told Pastor they were working on the proposed development of the former Convention Place Mall at 435 Elm St. in downtown Cincinnati, which has been an eyesore for years but still is considered a prime location.

Former Cincinnati Bengal Chinedum Ndukwe, whose company is trying to develop the former mall site, agreed to cooperate with the FBI as a confidential informant after agents approached him and asked for his help.

Ndukwe could not be reached for comment. But DeVillers said the developer decided to cooperate because he was frustrated with “being shaken down” while working on city development projects.

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He said Ndukwe worked closely with undercover FBI agents throughout the course of the investigation.

Chris Hoffman, special agent in charge of the FBI in Cincinnati, said Pastor accepted his first bribe from undercover agents about six months after taking office. “It undermines the public trust,” Hoffman said. “He promoted his own interests over those of the citizens of the city of Cincinnati.”

The indictment includes several excerpts from recorded phone and text message conversations that prosecutors say illustrate Pastor’s determination to profit from his council seat, which he narrowly won in November 2017.

In one such conversation, in January 2019, Pastor told one of the two undercover agents that he sometimes worried they might be “FBI plants.” But a few days later, the indictment states, Pastor told the same undercover agent he wanted a $115,000 salary so they could “get the best” out of him.

Pastor explained to the agent, who was posing as a developer, that he was getting paid “pennies on the dollar” for the good work he was doing for him at City Hall.

In an earlier phone conversation, the indictment states, Marshall confirmed a $20,000 payment that would be split between him and Pastor as a worthwhile investment by the developers. “A lot of what you all doing is going through council and that is where Jeff comes in,” Marshall said, according to the indictment.

In March 2019, prosecutors said, Pastor repeated his desire to get bribes related to his council work, describing a hypothetical deal in which he’d collect $7,500 before a project wins approval and another $7,500 after.

“I like s*** like that,” Pastor told the undercover agent, according to the indictment.

By that time, though, DeVillers said the FBI had decided to stop paying Pastor money because it had gathered enough evidence to charge him. It would take more than a year, however, before those charges were filed, in part, DeVillers said, because of considerations related to other corruption investigations.

One of those investigations appears to be the probe related to Ohio House Bill 6 legislation, which ensnared former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder. DeVillers said Pastor’s case is not directly linked to House Bill 6, but the two cases do overlap peripherally.

A Columbus lobbyist implicated in the House Bill 6 case, which alleges public officials accepted bribes to support a bailout of nuclear plants, has said he believes he dealt with two undercover FBI agents who also were investigating the Convention Place Mall development.

The lobbyist, Neil Clark, was enlisted to help Ndukwe bring sports betting to a boutique hotel Ndukwe hoped to build at the former mall site.

Clark has told reporters that he believes conversations with the agents, who claimed to be developers, were recorded and used against him and others implicated in the House Bill 6 case.

The proposed Convention Place Mall project remains in limbo today, though Ndukwe still wants to develop the site. The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority currently owns the property.

It doesn’t appear Pastor’s vote on any development deal was decisive. The only council vote related to the 435 Elm St. site was the sale of the property to The Port for $1, and that vote was unanimous.

DeVillers praised Ndukwe for agreeing to help investigators and said such cooperation is crucial to ending corruption at City Hall. A second confidential informant also assisted the FBI, but that person has not been identified.

“We want to flip the script,” DeVillers said. “We want to change this from a culture of corruption to a culture of whistleblowers.”

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