P.G. Sittenfeld ’07, shown in October 2023, was Cincinnati’s youngest councilmember ever when he was elected at 27 in 2011
Cara Owsley, The (Cincinnati) Enquirer
He has served nearly five months of a 16-month sentence after being convicted of bribery and attempted extortion.

P.G. Sittenfeld ’07, a rising political star in Cincinnati whose career was derailed when he was convicted of bribery and attempted extortion in 2022, was granted provisional release from federal prison Wednesday — a new twist in a case that has raised constitutional questions.  

The move came after a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals heard Sittenfeld’s arguments May 9 on why his conviction should be overturned. A different set of judges in the same circuit had previously upheld the lower court’s denial of Sittenfeld’s request to stay free pending the outcome of his appeal. But the three judges who heard the full presentation of Sittenfeld’s appeal during oral arguments in Cincinnati were convinced that Sittenfeld’s case raised “a close question” that could result in his conviction being reversed. Therefore, they ruled, he should be allowed to remain free in the meantime.   

“We are overjoyed that PG  gets to be home,” one of Sittenfeld’s three older sisters, the bestselling novelist Curtis Sittenfeld, told PAW in a text shortly after the order of release was handed down.  

Confined since early January for a 16-month sentence in a minimum-security federal prison camp in Ashland, Kentucky, Sittenfeld, 39, was expected to return home by Wednesday night to Cincinnati, where he and his wife are parents of two young sons. Sittenfeld’s supporters took hope from his release that the appeals court will rule in his favor. In their order, however, the judges wrote that “we express no opinion on the ultimate outcome of Sittenfeld’s appeal.”  

The heart of Sittenfeld’s case is that he never made an explicit promise to support a development project next to Cincinnati’s convention center in return for $20,000 contributed to his political action committee. Rather, as a longtime avowedly pro-development councilmember, he was already supportive of the project, and he said in a conversation recorded by the FBI that he would not participate in a “quid pro quo.” A star witness for the prosecution was a former Cincinnati Bengal-turned-developer whom Sittenfeld considered a friend but who was secretly cooperating with the FBI. Sittenfeld’s lawyers argue that upholding the conviction would essentially criminalize routine daily interactions between elected officials and supporters and would cripple their free speech rights. 

“We are gratified that the Sixth Circuit has decided to release PG from prison while it continues to consider his appeal following oral argument last week,” Sittenfeld’s lawyers Yaakov Roth and James Burnham said in a statement. “PG is innocent, and we are hopeful that the Court will soon recognize that he was wrongfully convicted.” 

A final ruling could take months. “It’s impossible to know how quickly the panel will issue a decision,” Burnham added in an interview. “But allowing P.G. to be with his family takes some time pressure off the process.” 

A public affairs officer for the office of Kenneth L. Parker, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.   

Sittenfeld was Cincinnati’s youngest councilmember ever when he was elected at 27 in 2011. He was the leading vote-getter in crowded fields both times he was re-elected in 2013 and 2017. He was considered a favorite to become Cincinnati’s next mayor when he was indicted in 2020 on six counts of allegedly accepting campaign contributions in return for promises to support a development project. Sittenfeld protested his innocence and testified in his own defense, and he was acquitted on four counts.  

Since then, an unusual array of former federal corruption prosecutors, former Justice Department officials, politicians, and business and civic leaders have signed briefs in support of Sittenfeld. They include former Attorneys General William Barr, John Ashcroft, and Michael Mukasey; Gregory Craig, White House Counsel under Barack Obama; Donald McGahn, White House Counsel to President Trump; and Carter Stewart, one of U.S. Attorney Parker’s predecessors as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. 

Throughout his legal ordeal, Sittenfeld has shared reflections about the experience with family and friends, including close Princeton classmates. These dispatches – by turn bittersweet, funny, and profound – are distributed to a wider circle of supporters by his family. Above all, the experience has “left me a changed man,” as he wrote to the trial judge last September before his sentencing. “I plan to continue to help others as best I can, and to pursue a life that is less about ‘winning,’ and more about serving.”