Grand jury convened in ‘Gang of Five’ criminal case

Grand jury convened in ‘Gang of Five’ criminal case

CINCINNATI (FOX19) - A special prosecutor has convened a grand jury as he looks into whether five Cincinnati council members broke the by being derelict of duty when they secretly conducted city business via private text messages and emails, an attorney for one of the council members confirms to FOX19 NOW.

Erik Laursen, who represents Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard, said Friday Dennard is under subpoena to appear before a Hamilton County grand jury at 1 p.m. Tuesday.

Dennard was served with the subpoena Thursday by a process server who tried to find her at City Hall. She excused herself from the council meeting, which was about to begin, and left, later meeting him at Laursen’s office where she was served.

Laursen has stressed Dennard did not try to evade being served and they do not believe criminal charges are warranted.

The Gang of Five involves five Democratic members of Cincinnati City Council - Dennard, Chris Seelbach, Wendell Young, P.G. Sittenfeld, and Greg Landsman, who admitted in a 2019 lawsuit settlement to privately communicating city business via text messages and emails in 2018.

Last month, the State Auditor’s Office recommended an investigation into a misdemeanor charge of dereliction of duty for the texting and using taxpayer money to hire outside attorneys to represent themselves.

A special prosecutor, Patrick Hanley, a former federal prosecutor, has been appointed.

Dennard’s subpoena was from Hanley, according to her attorney.

Attorneys for Landsman and Seelbach tell FOX19 NOW those council members have not been served with a subpoena.

“I’ve been in contact with Pat Hanley, the special prosecutor,” said Tom Hodges, who represents Seelbach.

“It’s an investigation. We’re cooperating. We don’t believe there is any Ohio law or precedent to support any criminal charges in this case - and I wouldn’t even say case - in this matter.

"There’s never been in Ohio history criminal prosecution for anything related to an Open Meetings Act issue. We just don’t consider it a criminal matter and we don’t think Ohio law does either. They dealt with this issue in court already. If you look at where this case came from, this came from an investigation from a Republican elected state auditor against five Democratic council members. If you look at Open Meetings Act violations for Republican-elected bodies, you’ll notice they’ve never been referred for prosecution for anything.”

We left requests for comment with Young and Sittenfeld but did not hear back.

Our news partners at the Cincinnati Enquirer are reporting they have confirmed Sittenfeld was not subpoenaed.

The special prosecutor did not respond to a request for comment Thursday or so far Friday.

This is the second time a grand jury has been convened to look into the “Gang of Five."

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters did in late November 2018 after discovering Young purposely deleted his text messages and Dennard said she lost hers when her phone was damaged at a pool.

Ultimately, Deters turned the case over to a county judge to handle, saying civil court was the more appropriate place to handle the matter.

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The settlement for the lawsuit cost the city $176,000 in total: $90,000 of which went to the law firm that launched the civil suit on behalf of an anti-tax activist.

Another $10,000 paid a statutory forfeiture because Young said he purposely deleted his text messages.

The city paid $75,000 in legal fees from outside lawyers to represent the city and the five council members in the suit, leaving the Open Meetings Act violation fine at $1,000.

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