FBI agents arrested Cincinnati City Councilor Jeff Pastor on Tuesday for leading what authorities describe as a brazen bribery program involving rewards for helping with city development projects.
Federal prosecutors have said that Pastor, a Republican who joined the board in January 2018, began soliciting money from developers in the months after taking office and, in some cases, accepted bags. money in exchange for his vote or other favorable treatment.
A friend of Pastor, Tyrant Marshall, also faces federal charges and is described by prosecutors as “a middleman” who arranged some payments and set up a non-profit charity through which Pastor funneled pots. -of-wine.
Prosecutors say undercover FBI agents posing as developers used electronic surveillance and at least two whistleblowers to unravel the pay-to-play program, which included a trip to Miami with a developer and pastor’s solicitations for money. money, investment opportunities and jobs.
Throughout the investigation, prosecutors say, Pastor suggested dollar amounts for the bribes and instructed officers how to pay them.
“Sometimes the money was literally handed over to the pastor,” said US Attorney David DeVillers, who will lead the prosecution. “Some things are so cheeky.”
He said Pastor, who is accused of collecting $ 55,000 in bribes, at one point told undercover agents that he should be paid $ 200,000 for his help and demanded “compensation. monthly “for her continued help.
The charges against Pastor and Marshall include corruption, money laundering, extortion, wire fraud, theft of honest services and conspiracy. If found guilty, they face more than 20 years in prison.
The 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 the developers, including some of the allegations that would later end up in the criminal charges, Pastor said he never accepted a bribe.
Marshall’s attorney, Clyde Bennett, said his client had done nothing wrong. “My guy has nothing to do with that,” Bennett said of Pastor’s work on the board. “There is a loose affiliation and connection, but this is not a conspiracy.”
The reaction to the pastor’s arrest was swift. State and local Republican Party leaders called on the adviser to step down immediately.
“Once the public trust is broken, a public servant must resign,” said Jane Timken, president of the Ohio GOP.
Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley also called on the pastor to step down, saying the accusations, if true, are among “the most egregious and disgusting acts of corruption and treason ever in our city.”
Pastor is the second city council member this year accused of accepting bribes from developers. Tamaya Dennard, a Democrat, resigned from the board in February after her arrest on charges of fraud and corruption.
Dennard’s case is unrelated to Pastor’s, but DeVillers said the two arrests reflect a tolerated “culture of corruption” within the city government. He said the investigation that resulted in the charges against Pastor and Dennard is ongoing and part of a larger campaign of public corruption in Cincinnati and other communities in Ohio.
“We’re concerned about this almost acceptance that this is how it’s done,” DeVillers said. “We will pursue these cases. Our goal is to make people nervous and prevent them from doing this. “
At a Tuesday afternoon press conference, DeVillers said the investigation was not complete and more people could be charged. “We have a long way to go,” he said. “We still have legal proceedings to do.”
The investigation began in August 2018, eight months after Pastor joined the board, and ended in February 2019. By that time, DeVillers said, Pastor had accepted $ 55,000 from undercover FBI agents. , most in cash, but some via Ummah Strength, according to nonprofit prosecutors. and Marshall used to launder money.
The indictment against Pastor quotes him as saying he needed the nonprofit to “clean up” the money.
According to prosecutors and the indictment, agents posing as developers told Pastor they were working on the development project for the former Convention Place mall at 435 Elm St. in the city center. of Cincinnati, which has been an eyesore for years but is still considered a prime location. .
Former Cincinnati Bengal Chinedum Ndukwe, whose company is trying to develop the old 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 at being “shaken up” while working on city development projects.
He said Ndukwe worked closely with undercover FBI agents throughout the investigation.
Chris Hoffman, a special agent in charge of the FBI in Cincinnati, said the pastor accepted his first bribe from undercover agents about six months after taking office. “It undermines public confidence,” Hoffman said. “He promoted his own interests over those of the citizens of the City of Cincinnati.”
The indictment includes several excerpts from taped phone and text conversations that prosecutors say illustrate Pastor’s determination to take advantage of his council seat, which he narrowly won in November 2017.
During one of these conversations, in January 2019, Pastor told one of the two undercover agents that he sometimes feared these were “FBI factories.” But days later, according to the indictment, Pastor told the same undercover agent that he wanted a salary of $ 115,000 so they could “get the most out of” him.
Pastor explained to the agent, who was posing as a developer, that he was being paid “pennies on the dollar” for the good work he did for him at town hall.
In a previous phone conversation, according to the indictment, Marshall described a payment of $ 20,000 that would be shared between him and Pastor as a profitable investment on the part of the developers. “A lot of what you all do goes through counseling and that’s where Jeff comes in,” Marshall said, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors say Pastor also solicited money from a second developer who agreed to help the FBI as an informant. This informant has not been identified, but the indictment indicates that the pastor told the person he wanted $ 25,000 to “keep him engaged” and that the money he had already received ” does not make the work I do worthy ”.
In March 2019, prosecutors said Pastor repeated to undercover agents his desire to obtain bribes related to his work on the council, describing a hypothetical deal in which he would raise $ 7,500 before a project broke. be approved and $ 7,500 thereafter.
“I like bullshit like that,” Pastor told the undercover agent, according to the indictment.
At that time, however, DeVillers said the FBI decided to stop paying the pastor’s money because they gathered enough evidence to charge him. However, it would take more than a year before those charges were laid, in part, DeVillers said, due to considerations of further corruption investigations.
One such investigation appears to be the Ohio House Bill 6 investigation, which trapped former Ohio House President Larry Householder. DeVillers said Pastor’s case was not directly related to Bill 6, but the two cases overlapped peripherally.
A Columbus lobbyist involved in the House Bill 6 case, which alleges officials accepted bribes to support a nuclear power plant bailout, said he believed he had dealt with two undercover FBI agents who were also investigating the development of the Convention Place Mall.
Lobbyist Neil Clark was hired to help Ndukwe bring sports betting to a boutique hotel Ndukwe hoped to build on the former mall site.
Clark told reporters he believed the conversations with the agents, who claimed to be developers, were recorded and used against him and others involved in the House Bill 6 case.
The proposed Convention Place Mall project remains in limbo today, although Ndukwe still wants to develop the site. The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority currently owns the property.
It does not appear that Pastor’s vote on a development agreement was decisive. The only council vote on the 435 Elm Street site was to sell 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 Town Hall. A second confidential informant also assisted the FBI, but this person has not been identified.
“We want to reverse the scenario,” DeVillers said. “We want to change this from a culture of corruption to a culture of whistleblowers.”
Enquirer reporters Jessie Balmert and Cameron Knight contributed.
The Enquirer will update this story.
Following:Jeff Pastor corruption case: read the indictment here
Following: Cincinnati City Council Arrest: What You Should Know About Jeff Pastor
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