COLUMBUS – Columbus lobbyist Neil Clark didn’t realize – while chatting with hotel developer clients after a Reds game – that he was talking with undercover FBI agents working to uncover two bribery schemes.
The first was against Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Pastor, a Republican, who was arrested Tuesday. He is accused of accepting $55,000 in bribes in exchange for his vote on development projects. Pastor pleaded not guilty to charges Tuesday afternoon.
The second was against Clark, former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a Republican, and three others. They are accused of orchestrating a nearly $61 million bribery scheme to seize control of the Ohio House, pass a more than $1 billion bailout for nuclear plants and defend those subsidies against a ballot initiative.
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Those two apparently unconnected, widespread bribery investigations converged in Cincinnati.
Two agents posed as Cincinnati hotel developers with Monarch Development Inc. and offered bribes to Pastor between August 2018 and February 2019.
One of the projects at the center of the Pastor investigation was 435 Elm St., the former Convention Place Mall that had become an eyesore. The FBI asked former Cincinnati Bengal Chinedum Ndukwe, whose company is trying to develop the former mall site, for help.
In January 2019, Clark met with Ndukwe and the two hotel developers, introduced as Brian Bennett and Rob Miller, in Clark’s Columbus office. Clark told The Enquirer that the men said they had the votes on Cincinnati Council for a boutique hotel at 435 Elm St. and wanted to offer sports betting there.
Sports betting isn’t yet legal in Ohio, but lawmakers are considering legislation to allow it. The key debate remains where should it be permitted and who should regulate it.
Clark now believes his hotel developer clients were actually FBI agents or informants. Federal documents in the Pastor case back that up. At least one “undercover law enforcement agent” posed as a business partner to Ndukwe and another, unidentified developer, according to Pastor’s indictment.
In June 2019, Clark and his clients watched a Reds-Houston Astros game in Cincinnati and then met politicians at the penthouse of 580 Walnut St. Clark said he met city council members there but wasn’t sure if Pastor was one of them.
Clark met with his clients in Nashville in July 2019 and at a suburban Columbus dinner club in September 2019. Conversations from those meetings later appeared in the federal indictment against him, Householder and three allies. Clark, Householder and lobbyist and former Ohio Republican Party chairman Matt Borges pleaded not guilty to racketeering charges.