The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Ohio announced June 30 that four sitting Toledo City Council members and one local attorney are being charged in what the Department of Justice is calling a “bribery and extortion scheme.”
Tyrone Riley of District 1 and Yvonne Harper of District 4, as well as at-large members Garrick Johnson, Larry Sykes and local lawyer Keith Mitchell, are being accused of “soliciting and/or accepting cash, checks, money orders, or other things of value from local business owners in exchange for their votes on City Council.”
According to the news release, the FBI began investigating Toledo City Council in early 2018 and discovered through several sources not named in the release that council members were accepting money in return for votes and legislation.
U.S. Attorney Describes ‘Bribery And Extortion Scheme’
The news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, as well as the criminal complaint documents themselves, detailed several interactions between council members and two “businessmen” totaling more than $30,000, by The Blade’s calculations. Some of the accusations include the following:
- From May 2018 to April 2019, a local businessman “bribed Councilman Tyrone Riley with $2,000 and other items of value” in return for Riley’s support of providing him with a Special Use Permit (SUP) for a curb cut; the news release states that Riley abstained from that vote on the SUP, which passed unanimously. It also states that the same businessman paid a “$700 bribe” to remove the sprinkler system requirement included in that permit. The complaint also accused Harper of intimidating this businessman by saying she would use a Facebook allegation that one of his tenants used racial slurs and “threatened (him) with protests, negative media attention and potential loss of their liquor license unless the constituent was compensated appropriately.” The businessman paid the constituent $2,500.
- In April 2018, another local businessman paid Riley $1,000 in return for his support in re-zoning an internet cafe business, which Riley and the rest of the City Council voted for. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, that same businessman also bribed all four council members, paying Harper $2,000 (plus an additional $320 to her fundraiser), Mitchell $500, Riley $5,000 and Sykes $1,500 to support a SUP application to open an internet cafe. That SUP passed the council unanimously. That same person paid $5,000 toward Harper’s reelection campaign and a $1,500 “fee” to Mitchell to ensure their votes for another internet cafe, which was also ultimately approved. A $2,000 payment to Johnson for another SUP application for an internet cafe “failed to garner the required votes.”
The case will be prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Freeman, according to the news release.
“This is a fundamental breach of the oath these officials took when assuming office and a breach with those citizens who elected them,” said FBI Special Agent Eric Smith during a press conference held on the matter.
You can read the full criminal complaint here.
All Four Council Members Were Arrested Tuesday Morning
According to local TV news station WTOL, Harper was arrested at her home during the execution of a search warrant and was seen “in handcuffs in her driveway.” Johnson is a reserve deputy sheriff and gun collector and he was ordered to take his firearms and ammunition out of his possession.
In the press conference, Smith said the FBI was still “currently seeking the whereabouts of Keith Mitchell.” Mitchell is accused of accepting bribes on Harper’s behalf.
All council members were given a $50,000 unsecured bond and told not to travel out-of-state or meet with co-defendants, victims or witnesses, The Blade reported. Notably, the court did not ban the council members from city council “deliberative business,” WTOL reported.
Upon her release, Harper said she didn’t know anything, The Blade reported.
Council members are paid $27,500 per year, according to WTOL.
City Council President Matt Cherry and fellow Democrat said, “Corruption of any kind cannot be tolerated and has no place in the government of Toledo and Ohio,” according to The Blade. He went on to add, “I ask everyone to withhold judgment until the investigation is over. I pray that the federal investigation into four council members is thorough and swift.”
Toledo’s Democratic, Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz, released a statement, in which he said he had no tolerance for public officials who abuse citizens’ trust:
I am shocked and heartbroken by today’s arrests. This is a terrible day for Toledo — and for everyone who believes in the good that can be accomplished through public service.
I was inspired to run for public office by a Catholic priest, Fr. Timothy O’Brien, who impressed upon me the benefits of a life dedicated to serving the public good. Because of his mentorship, I have no tolerance for public officials who abuse the trust of the citizens. One of the reasons Toledo has seen relatively little political corruption, historically, is because the public doesn’t tolerate it either.
These members of Council are entitled to their day in court, and they should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. I encourage all Toledoans to say a prayer for our city and for the hope that justice will be done in this case
U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman noted during the press conference that federal bribery and extortion charges could result in 10-year and 20-year sentences respectively. Harper is facing an additional charge of “unlawful interstate communications with the intent to extort,” which carries a 2-year imprisonment penalty, WTOL reported. The council members will next appear July 20.