Corruption in Local Politics: Cincinnati’s Troubled Past and Present

Cincinnati | © Travis Wise / Flickr

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Introduction
The city of Cincinnati has a rich and storied history. One of those exciting chapters is the prominent role the city played in the freedom struggle of the 19th century, being heavily involved in underground railroad and abolitionist activity. (Cincinnati is positioned on the Ohio River, the southern boundary of a border state, next to Kentucky, a former slave state).

Cincinnati’s Storied History of Corruption
Our city goes by many nicknames, including Cincy, the ‘Nati, the Queen City, the Queen of the West, the Blue Chip City and the City of Seven Hills. But lately, an unfavorable designation has been ascribed to Cincinnati: a city with a “culture of corruption.” This description (of course) refers to all of the recent arrests, indictments and allegations against city officials.

Is this so-called culture of corruption an anomaly in our time or has there been a long history of foul play in Cincinnati politics? A recent article in the Cincinnati Enquirer titled Corruption in Cincinnati: A brief history…  offers a short historical survey of city officials who had a run-in with the law due to legal improprieties in their capacity as public servants. In this article we build upon the work from the Cincinnati Enquirer and continue to offer an analysis and history of the city of Cincinnati.

A History of Corruption

“Jerry Springer” show promotional photo from 1995.
CREDIT JERRY SPRINGER SHOW

A historic figure who is the epitome of Cincinnati corruption is George Cox (1853-1916), otherwise known as Boss Cox. A Republican and associate of William Howard Taft, Cox served on the Cincinnati City Council for two terms. Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Cameron Knight in a February 27, 2020 article writes:

“It could be said that Cox singlehandedly stopped the Democratic party from controlling Cincinnati at the turn of the 20th century. He was elected to City Council at 24, but is more well known for the political machine he created. In short, he was a kingmaker in the city for nearly two decades. Cox was notorious for paying off government leaders. Voting fraud was said to be rampant during his reign. He would take promising officials under his wing, lavishing them with gifts and bribes.” In fact, Cincinnati’s “homegrown political party,” known as the Charter Party, was formed to fight the rampant corruption of George Cox’s political machine. It took fellow Republicans from Cox’s own party to dismantle his political machine. Murray Seasongood (A Republican) changed the structure of the Cincinnati government when he became the first Mayor in 1925 under the newly established Charter Party, which he had established. The new city government under the charterites required non-partisan, at-large elections. But destroying Cox’s political machine did not rid Cincinnati from corruption in government forever.

One of the most famous cases of corruption in Cincinnati government was when Jerry Springer had to resign from City Council in 1974. Springer was caught and pleaded guilty to an embarrassing prostitution scandal, but he faced no charges. After he publicly admitted guilt he was reelected and named mayor by fellow council members in 1975.

In the same year that Springer was appointed mayor, Vice Mayor William Chenault pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor charges of falsifying city expense vouchers. Chenault accepted a plea deal, and his two charges of “theft in office and embezzlement” were dropped; convictions would have given him two felonies. Chenault was fined $2,000 and avoided any jail time. The year 1975 was a tough one for political scandal in the Queen City. In the same year of the Chenault scandal, former Police Chief Carl Goodin was indicted and later convicted of perjury and tampering with evidence, in a scandal that involved the infamous Larry Flynt (of Hustler magazine fame). Flynt was alleged to have bribed police officers with money and sex parties. Goodwin’s charges were eventually dropped.

In the 1980’s Mayor Tom Brush (1982-1983), a Charterite, was imprisoned for failing to file a tax return. In the same year, Councilman Phil Collins Jr. was sent to prison for Medicare fraud. A decade later, in 1990, Joe DeCourcy (Hamilton County Auditor) was convicted of under-appraising his friend’s property, illegally. When “Friends of Joe” submitted their tax forms they were told by DeCourcy to mark their forms with the acronym “FOJ,” and they received special treatment. DeCourcy was found guilty and convicted of five misdemeanors.

Recent Corruption in Local Government
This historical backdrop makes the recent corruption in Cincinnati seem like an all-too-familiar pattern. Since 2019 a number of City Council members have been accused of, or charged with crimes, including the so-called “Gang of Five” in Cincinnati. These five members– Tamaya Dennard, Greg Landsman, Chris Seelbach, P.G. Sittenfeld and Wendell Young — admitted to violating Ohio’s Sunshine law by conducting council business through text messaging and not sharing the information with the public. Cincinnati Council Member Wendell Young was most recently indicted on one count of tampering with records for allegedly deleting text messages. Our WVXU colleague Tana Weingartner offers some details about the case in a recent article entitled Cincinnati Council Member…Indicted In Texting Case. Furthermore, Sittenfeld, Dennard and former councilman Jeff Pastor were all arrested on corruption charges, legal troubles arising from relationships with property developers, separate from the text-messaging controvery.

Conclusion
Many people are concerned that the recent corruption scandals in Cincinnati may cause the public to lose what faith we have in elected officials and in the voting process. As a result, there is talk of implementing measures to prevent further corruption. One reporter even made mention of Seasongood in connection to the Dennard case, referring to the need for reform in the city politics. Below we have included some lessons and resources teachers can use to have meaningful discussions with their students surrounding corruption in government. We’ll also address the topic in an upcoming Democracy & Z podcast, with young people sharing their perspectives.

Lesson Plans and Resources
Secondary Education: Anti-Corruption
Corruption and Governance-Lesson Plan
Combating the Culture of Corruption
Variety of Lesson Plans and Resources on Bribery
5 Lessons on Fighting Corruption
Fraud, Suppression and Corruption Lesson Plan