CINCINNATI, OH (CelebrityAccess MediaWire) — Nobody won in Cincinnati's Empire Theater fiasco, and now this week the "celebrity developer" behind the rip-off of more than $180,000 in city funds has been convicted on all seven charges.
According to the Cincinnati Enquirer and Cincinnati Post LaShawn Pettus-Brown, the developer of the failed Empire Theater renovation project in Over-the-Rhine, was convicted of spending money intended for the theater on new shoes, jewelry and thousands of dollars in other personal expenses. The Hamilton County jury found LaShawn Pettus-Brown guilty of all seven theft-related charges after three days of deliberations. He faces up to 21 years in prison when he returns for sentencing next month.
Some Hamilton County jurors were sympathetic to the former basketball star and blamed the city for giving Pettus-Brown the loan in the first place. Although the verdict was unanimous, two jurors said after the verdict today that the decision was difficult because some believed Cincinnati officials also were responsible for the project's failure.
The city contributed more than $180,000 to the project, in hopes of spurring development on Vine Street. Mayor Charlie Luken was among the city officials to testify at the trial.
"I think the city dropped the ball,'' said Benjamin Peterson, one of the 12 jurors.”He never would have been in the situation he was in if the city would've caught the red flags.
City development officials at the time failed to exercise due diligence even in the most rudimentary fashion on Pettus-Brown's assets, his so-called associates or his competence to undertake such a project. What city officials did or failed to do may have been mystifying or even infuriating for taxpayers, but it was never found to be criminal conduct. Pettus-Brown's conduct was unmistakably criminal, as he diverted rehabilitation funds to his own personal use or enterprises far beyond Cincinnati. The building later collapsed, and the city had to bulldoze the site.
"He should be held accountable, but I don't think it should all be dropped on him.''
Assistant Hamilton County Prosecutor Bill Anderson said mistakes by the city "in no way excuses the defendant's actions.''
Pettus-Brown's attorney, Pete Rosenwald, asked Judge Ethna Cooper to lower his client's $2 million bond, but she refused.
Pettus-Brown already served one year in jail while awaiting a separate trial in federal court. That case also ended in a guilty verdict, but the federal judge threw out the verdict and released Pettus-Brown, saying prosecutors failed to prove he was guilty of wire fraud.
Mayor Charlie Luken says the city has developed a more rigorous system for screening applications for project funds and more controls before public money is released. If those changes are indeed lasting, then some good has come from this sorry mess.