Cincinnati Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard tried to exchange her votes for money, feds say

Updated: Feb. 26, 2020 at 6:43 AM EST
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CINCINNATI (FOX19) - Democratic Cincinnati City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard was arrested on federal charges Tuesday after she tried to sell her council vote for money, according to the Department of Justice.

Dennard was taken into custody in downtown Cincinnati on charges of honest services wire fraud, bribery and attempted extortion. She appeared in federal court at 1:30 p.m. in handcuffs and leg irons.

She was released on her own recognizance but ordered to surrender her passport.

“I don’t believe that she’s done anything unethical, or illegal, and we’ll be looking to fight that,” said her attorney, Erik Laursen.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 16 at 1:30 p.m.

If convicted on all charges, Dennard could face up to 50 years in prison, federal officials say.

An FBI agent wrote in his sworn statement unsealed Tuesday that he was transferred to the Cincinnati office of the FBI in January 2018 and assigned to a white collar/public corruption unit “specifically to investigate public corruption in Southern Ohio to include bribery, extortion, and theft of funds from programs receiving government money.”

Since that time, the agent wrote that he has conducted or participated in public corruption investigations utilizing advanced techniques to include the use of undercover employees, confidential sources, consensual undercover recordings, surveillance, traps, trace devices and analysis of financial records.

Dennard is accused of engaging in and attempting acts of bribery and extortion and trying to exchange her votes for money between August and December 2019.

The criminal complaint alleges she requested $10,000 to $15,000 for personal expenses from an employee at a law firm representing a stakeholder in The Banks development on the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati.

The "concerned citizen contacted law enforcement following an interaction with Dennard, feeling an ethical and moral obligation to report any criminal wrongdoing,” said U.S. Attorney David M. DeVillers said in a news release.

“The individual then worked at the direction of law enforcement throughout this investigation. It takes courage for citizens to come forward and assist law enforcement as this individual did.”

The federal source gave the FBI text messages and recordings of conversations with the councilwoman between August and December 2019, according to the criminal complaint, written by FBI agent Nathan Holbrook.

During those conversations, according to court records, Dennard agreed to give her support to a proposed land swap with Hilltop Basic Concrete necessary for construction of a music venue at The Banks development on Cincinnati’s riverfront.

“Dennard engaged in a scheme to defraud the citizens of Cincinnati of her honest services as a council member,” Holbrook wrote in his sworn statement. “She engaged in acts and attempted acts of bribery and extortion, attempting to exchange her votes for money.”

She deposited $10,000 in a personal bank account the same day she received it and requested the additional $5,000 in advance, the criminal complaint states.

“Records indicate the same day she received the $5,000 in cash, Dennard booked two seats on a Sept. 22, 2019 flight from Cincinnati to Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport. On Sept. 27, 2019, she booked two return tickets. Financial records indicate Dennard spent more than $4,000 total on the Florida trip to include accommodations at the Opal Sands Resort in Clearwater, Fla. and the airfare,” the DOJ said in a news release.

Dennard repeatedly reached out to the unnamed employee by text message in October and November 2019.

Text messages included “Happy to help you. But need yours too;" and “As I said, I’m sure there will be ways to help you as well and I will.”

Federal records show Dennard said she needed money for rent, a car and attorney fees. She also texted the employee a picture of an eviction notice.

At first, the employee declined to give her money, according to the affidavit, and said she could contact Legal Aid for help with the eviction and other problems.

“It would be totally inappropriate for me to represent you or provide any financial assistance,” the employee wrote in a text message to Dennard, federal court records show. “Please don’t suggest it again."

Then the employee contacted federal officials about her communications and request for money from someone with business before City Council, the FBI agent wrote.

The following details are outlined in federal court records as follows:

The employee provided copies of the text messages and began assisting the FBI by re-initiating contact with her at FBI direction.

Later that month, the informant conducted a consensually recorded call to Dennard and left a voice mail message that he/she was thinking about her and felt bad about her situation and wanted to see if there was still a way to help.

A few days later, she responded via text: "Hello, I appreciated your voicemail. I appreciate your willingness to help out. Please let me know if you have time to meet soon."

They met the following day and the employee was equipped with an FBI audio recording device to capture the meeting. Dennard told the employee about her personal financial troubles, after which she requested $10,000.

The recording included the following conversation:

Dennard: "It's more of, like, trying to get a car and, like I said, money for a new place to live and then just a little bit of breathing room. And I think, you know, it's kind of hard to get that head space."

Employee: "So you still ...I mean, what do you, what you think you're gonna need, I mean...

Dennard: "Probably like ten."

Employee: "Ten?"

Dennard: "Yeah. Because, like, you know, apartment, it's like you gotta put down first month's rent and, like, a deposit. And then also a car, probably like...I've been looking, probably like I put down twenty-five to three thousand dollars to get a car, you know, not a new car."

Following the $10,000 request, the employee proceeded to explain the Hilltop land swap deal to Dennard and told her the mayor was opposed to the land swap.

The employee and Dennard discussed the positions of the other council members regarding approval of the deal and he/she needed council support to get the proposal in a council committee.

She responded she didn’t think it would be an issue to get it into committee, where it would be up for approval and then go onto full council for a vote, telling him “we can just suspend the rules, six of us. You know what I mean.”

She also told the employee that once the rules are suspended council can vote "on anything we need to vote on." She also said "the super majority is everything" and explained that even if the mayor did place an issue on the agenda, the council can still bring it forward."

Later in the conversation, she again told the employee she needed $10,000, saying "and then like I said something I can pay back probably like no more than $200 a month."

The informant asked if she wanted the money wired into her bank account. She told the employee she never did a wire before, but whatever “is feasible or easiest.”

The employee explained to Dennard that a wire would require a bank account number and the bank's routing number or the employee could give her a check.

She responded: "Check is cool. Like and then I would like have a note or something, like, you know what I mean. Like some sort of like so I'm not, you know, I want to make sure I'm being - what do they call it - I'm ethical."

Dennard suggested a promissory note to repay the $10,000.

Later that same day, she sent the employee a text requesting more.

"I wanted to talk to see if $15,000 is doable. I created a promissory note for 6 years and payments of $215/month."

This text message also contained Dennard's bank routing information, followed by a request for the transactions to occur more quickly.

"It would be awesome if this were initiated today so that I can return this rental," the text read.

When the employee responded that he/she was busy and asked to talk later in the day, Dennard texted: "I understand. If it gets too late for a wire, I can also pick up a check?"

The following day, Sept. 6, 2019, she sent the employee the following text: "It's totally cool if you don't have time to talk. If you could just let me know if/she the wire could be initiated, that would be most helpful."

Later that day, the informant recorded a call with Dennard where they discussed the $15,000 she requested. The employee said he/she could give her the money three days later, on Sept. 9, 2019.

Dennard asked the employee if that was as soon as he/she could do it (deliver the money). She also said she had applied for an apartment and wanted to move fast because there was a waiting list for the apartment.

The following conversation ensued, according to federal records:

Employee: "So I'll give you ten thousand now...."

Dennard: "Mmm-hmm."

Employee: "....and you''re good with're good with supporting Hilltop's proposal to do the land swap..."

Dennard: "Mmm-hmm. Yes."

Employee: "...when it comes before council? We' awesome."

Dennard: "Mmm-hmm."

Employee: “And then, and then I think as this thing goes through, I mean, if...probably the most, the most important vote will be the first vote and then there’s probably going to be a second vote and if you can hold on, you know, I can give you the five thousand after that second vote if that’s good with you.”

Dennard: "Um, yeah, that's, that's fine."

At the end of the telephone conversation, Dennard again requested that the informant let her know if he/she can do something sooner even if it’s not the full $10,000.

On Sept. 7, 2019, the employee told Dennard he/she "was not able to move funds yesterday. I will have what you requested Monday morning, though."

Dennard responded that her account was negative and that "Monday is an eternity away." She then sent the following text messages:

"With this music venue, I don't have a dog in the fight."

"It's wealthy people fighting to be more wealthy."

According to the affidavit, the source gave Dennard a $10,000 check on Sept. 9 in downtown Cincinnati and secretly recorded the meeting.

Employee: “That’s a cashier’s check."

Dennard: “Oh, that’s perfect. Thank you ... I’m going right to the bank on this."

She didn’t mention the promissory note or paying back the money again, according to the FBI.

On Oct. 2, 2019, City council rejected the land swap deal with Dennard voting in favor of the deal (opposing the mayor’s motion against it) as promised, the criminal complaint notes.

Following the vote, Dennard is accused of continuing to contact the unnamed federal source for money “while tying the payments to help she could provide in return,” it states.

She texted the source on Oct. 11, 2019, stating in part: “I just need your help of $1,200 today.”

When he/she did not respond, she followed up with another text later in the morning: “I really need your help. Please respond.”

A few hours later, she texted again: “Hi! I’m with you. But a few competing interest (sic) have reached out. I at least want to know that you’ve read my texts and give a damn.”

The following month, federal records show, the unnamed federal source executed another consensually recorded telephone call to Dennard during which he told her the next issue in regards to the building of the music venue on The Banks related to a zoning change.

Just minutes after the call, federal officials say Dennard texted the source:

“Great talking with you. I know you called me because you are trying to get some things done. Otherwise you’ve been tapped out or too busy. Just to make sure we are going to be okay, please send a little help to me today. Cash Ap is ok. Or I can meet you later? I hate to be transactional but you’ve kind of made it like that.”

Two days later, on Nov. 4, 2019, she texted again: “Good morning! Are you around today? I could really use your help. It’s kind of urgent to get it today. Happy to help you. But need yours too.”

The criminal complaint reveals federal officials believe a large amount of more cash went into her bank account last year with unknown origins.

“Analysis of her personal banking account records from June 3, 2019, to Nov. 21, 2019, indicates numerous cash deposits in an amount totaling $20,295.00. The source of the cash deposits is unknown," the FBI agent wrote.

Dennard’s arrest Tuesday is the latest in a string of problems for the Democratic councilwoman.

She is among five council members under investigation by a special prosecutor appointed by a Hamilton County judge after the state auditor made a referral for prosecution on the charge of dereliction of duty. It is related to Dennard and the other four council members illegally texting and emailing each other about public city business.

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Dennard is facing an Ohio Elections complaint accusing her of taking consulting fees from her campaign finance account.

She also was recently evicted from her residence and, last year, sued by a retired police official she called “racist” in a text.

If convicted, she would lose the ability to be an elected official in Ohio.

State law prohibits people from holding office if they are convicted of a felony of fraud, theft, or deceit, according to Ohio Revised Code.

Dennard will continue to hold her city council seat for now.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost could launch the process of seeking her suspension. He could ask the Ohio State Supreme Court to establish a special commission, one typically made up of retired judges from various counties in the state to review the case and decide.

All meetings of the special commission are typically usually closed to the public. The records are not made available to the public for inspection or copying until the special commission issues its written report or otherwise concludes its proceeding.

If Dennard is suspended or agrees to be suspended while her criminal case works through the court system, a previously designated council member she has on file with the council clerk will pick her successor, said Hamilton County Democratic Chairman Tim Burke. That person is Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, city officials confirmed Tuesday.

We contacted several council members for reaction to Dennard’s arrest and charges.

Several didn’t respond. Some declined comment, including Jeff Pastor and Amy Murray.

“We just have to wait and see what happens. It’s a sad day for the city,” Councilman David Mann said.

“I am praying for my colleague," said Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman. "I am going to put her on my devotion list and pray for her tonight and in the morning. I am going to be praying for peace for her and for her family.”

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