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Cincinnati city councilwoman Tamaya Dennard accused of trying to exchange votes for money

Posted: 11:21 AM, Feb 25, 2020
Updated: 2020-02-26 15:04:22-05

CINCINNATI — Editor's note: WCPO interviewed Marty Pinales Tuesday night as a defense attorney; On Wednesday, Tamaya Dennard interred the law firm Pinales works for as her primary representation.

Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard’s attorney was surprised Tuesday morning when a WCPO reporter told him his client had been arrested on federal charges.

In fact, most everyone seemed to be caught unaware. Even her fellow council members were confused as they waited for her to appear to chair a committee scheduled for 11 a.m.

Councilman David Mann was the only city leader who would publicly respond to Dennard's arrest tonight, calling the arrest "sad on many levels" and adding that he's "still reeling from it."

When asked if Dennard should resign, Mann said, "If it's true, yes. She's entitled to due process."

Mann said he has no plans to call on her to resign until more is known about the case.

Dennard was arrested Tuesday in the Downtown Starbucks and charged with honest services wire fraud, bribery and attempted extortion, according to United States Attorney David DeVillers, who confirmed the news in a press release Tuesday afternoon.

"If they brought her in, I would have expected to get a call ahead of time, so it was a bit of a surprise in that sense," attorney Erik Laursen said.

Dennard is accused of attempting to exchange votes for money between August and December of 2019, according to the release.

“It was hard, but she’s got a brave face on,” Laursen said of Dennard.

Dennard allegedly approached an employee at a Cincinnati law firm who specializes in development negotiations, according to federal court documents. Dennard allegedly requested a meeting with the employee, who said they were surprised to hear from Dennard because they had only met her once before.

Dennard asked for $10,000 from the employee, referred to in court documents as CHS, to pay for personal expenses, the court documents state. She allegedly told CHS that she needed the money to pay her rent, place a down payment on a car and pay for attorneys fees.

In December, apartment complex The Baldwin served Dennard with an eviction notice, saying the bank had returned her rent payment of $2,986, according to the eviction notice.

After the call with CHS, court documents say CHS offered Dennard advice on how to handle her personal financial issues, and later texted her to say that they would not be providing Dennard with any money.

"After speaking with you today, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders," Dennard responded in a text message outlined in federal court documents. "You seemed genuinely interested in helping me and I genuinely need help. The tone of our conversation was hopeful. This text is dry and it feels as if something is stopping you. Is it my politics? I don't have any other avenues. I called because I literally am out of options. Can you please tell me why people won't help? What I need to get my head above water is a pittance to many who are able. I have $200 in my account. I got into a rough spot trying to help my mom and now I have nothing. I appreciate you taking my call and being willing to help today."

Dennard then texted a photo of an eviction notice she received from The Baldwin, according to court documents, and added: "If you are willing to meet with me, I'm sure that I will be able to help you."

The individual then worked with the FBI to complete the transactions Dennard requested, according to the press release, exchanging a total of $15,000 in increments of $10,000 and $5,000 for upcoming votes "on a matter scheduled to be heard by Council."

That matter, court documents explain, was specifically related to development projects at The Banks, including the upcoming music venue and a proposed land swap with Hilltop Companies. According to the documents, the law firm CHS worked for represents a stakeholder in projects at The Banks.

“As the affidavit details, a concerned citizen contacted law enforcement following an interaction with Dennard, feeling an ethical and moral obligation to report any criminal wrongdoing,” DeVillers said in the 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.”

After receiving an initial payment of $10,000 from the individual, DeVillers said in the release, Dennard then booked two seats on a flight to Destin-Fort Walton Beach, where she stayed for roughly a week.

"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," according to the release from DeVillers.

On Oct. 2, City Council rejected the land swap deal with Hilltop, but Dennard voted in favor of the deal, opposing Mayor John Cranley's motion against it, as she'd promised CHS she would.

Court documents further detail text messages, recorded calls and meetings during which CHS was wearing a wire, where Dennard continued to ask for more money after she'd received the $15,000, and continued to offer favorable votes on issues relevant to CHS and his or her employer.

"With this music venue, I don't have a dog in the fight," court documents say Dennard texted CHS. "It's wealthy people fighting to be more wealthy."

In October, court documents allege Dennard texted CHS asking for an additional $1,200. When she didn't receive a response, documents say she continued to text them, going on to eventually say, "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."

A federal analysis of Dennard's personal bank account records from June 3, 2019 to November 21, 2019 show several cash deposits totaling $20,295, according to court documents. The source of these cash deposits is unknown, the documents said.

She is charged with one count each of honest services wire fraud, punishable by up to 20 years in prison; bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, punishable by up to 10 years in prison; and attempted extortion under color of right, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

"In many ways, what she's faced have been political issues," Laursen said. "She's had all kinds of challenges in the past and she's risen to face all of them. I don't believe she's done anything unethical or illegal and we'll be looking to fight that."

Defense attorney Marty Pinales told WCPO Tuesday night the chances Dennard spends decades in prison are slim.

"They're (the charges) likely, first of all, not to be stacked," Pinales said. "And they're likely not to be the extent -- that level because those are what Congress passed as the maximum possible sentence."

Despite the high-profile nature of the case, Pinales said the trial is likely to stay in Hamilton County and Dennard will face a jury of peers from Southern Ohio.

The case will go before a grand jury in the next 30 days.

Dennard was elected to Cincinnati City Council in November of 2017.

Read the full federal affidavit below:

Tamaya Dennard Criminal Complaint by WCPO Web Team on Scribd