CINCINNATI (FOX19) - A special prosecutor looking into whether four Cincinnati City Council members and a now-former one broke the law by deciding public business privately said Tuesday the coronavirus pandemic has delayed it, but he’s still working and hopes to finish soon.
“It’s certainly been delayed, so to speak, because it’s difficult to do the normal things,” Patrick Hanley told FOX19 NOW. “It’s ongoing and I’m still working on it. There is no timeline, but I hope to wrap this thing up in the near future.”
Last year, the State Auditor’s Office recommended an investigation into a criminal misdemeanor charge of dereliction of duty for the five who privately exchanged texts and emails in 2018 and then used taxpayer money to hire outside attorneys to represent themselves.
The so-called “Gang of Five," Tamaya Dennard, P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Wendell Young and Greg Landsman, admitted in a lawsuit settlement last year to violating Ohio’s Open Meetings Act. At that time, a Hamilton County judge told them they should resign.
It’s still remains unclear if they will be criminally charged in the matter.
Hanley didn’t didn’t say Tuesday, and grand jury proceedings are typically secret.
Earlier this year, however, an attorney for Dennard confirmed a grand jury was convened in the matter after Dennard was served with a subpoena. The attorney, Erik Laursen, said he and Dennard didn’t think criminal charges were warranted.
It was not clear at the time why Dennard was asked to report to the grand jury. Shortly after, her lawyer said she was no longer was required to go.
Then, in a separate case, Dennard was arrested by federal authorities in February on allegations she sold her council vote on a development deal for cash.
She has been indicted on charges of honest services wire fraud, bribery and attempted extortion. If convicted, she faces a maximum penalty of 50 years in prison.
Dennard resigned in March amid growing calls for her to step down.
In January, attorneys for other council members including Landsman and Seelbach told FOX19 NOW they were not served with subpoenas in connection with the special prosecutor’s grand jury.
Seelbach’s attorney, Tom Hodges, has said he had been in contact with Hanley and they were cooperating but didn’t think there was any Ohio law or precedent to support any criminal charge in the matter.
Hodges reiterated that Tuesday when we reached him for comment.
He also has said the issue already was dealt with through the resolution of the civil case in court last year and the investigation came from a Republican-elected state auditor against five Democratic council members.
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
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.