CINCINNATI – 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.
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.
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.
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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 Cincinnati Enquirer, part of the USA TODAY Network, 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.
‘We still have some prosecutions to do’
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 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.”
Former Cincinnati Bengal helps FBI
The investigation began in August 2018, eight months after Pastor joined the 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 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.
He said Ndukwe worked closely with undercover FBI agents throughout the course of the investigation.
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.”
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.
Not the first Ohio corruption case of 2020
DeVillers said the case against Pastor is not directly related to the federal investigation of House Bill 6 legislation that ensnared former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, but the two did 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.
Contributing: Jessie Balmert and Cameron Knight, Cincinnati Enquirer
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This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Jeff Pastor: Cincinnati City Councilman arrested for bribery, feds say