CINCINNATI — Former Cincinnati City Councilmember Tamaya Dennard pleaded not guilty to public corruption charges on Monday in U.S. District Court.
Dennard, who had been council president pro tem, did not comment as she left the Downtown courthouse with her mother and brother following the brief hearing. Her attorney, Eric Eckes, also declined comment.
This was Dennard’s first appearance since a grand jury indicted her on charges of honest services wire fraud, bribery and attempted extortion on March 11. Those charges carry a maximum penalty of 50 years in prison.
The hearing lasted for less than 10 minutes before U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephanie Bowman, who continued Dennard’s release on a personal recognizance bond. But it was an important step as Dennard makes her way through the federal justice system.
“This is when the defendant learns a lot about the strength of the case again them. Undercover recordings, wiretap evidence, surveillance, videos, documentary evidence,” said former federal prosecutor Ben Dusing. “If the defendant doesn’t know what the government ‘has’ on her before this point, she does now.”
Dennard allegedly approached Frost Brown Todd attorney Tom Gabelman, who represents Hamilton County on riverfront development matters, and asked for $10,000 for rent, a car down payment and attorney’s fees in August 2019.
Gabelman allegedly reported this to the FBI and agreed to help with their investigation. Gabelman worked with the FBI to complete the transactions Dennard requested, exchanging a total of $15,000 for upcoming votes on a land swap involving Hilltop Basic Resources to benefit the building of a concert venue at The Banks, according to prosecutors.
After receiving an initial payment of $10,000 from the individual, prosecutors said, Dennard then booked two seats on a flight to Destin-Fort Walton Beach, where she stayed for roughly a week.
The case will now move into U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott’s hands. She may set a trial date for two to three months from now, but attorneys will likely ask for a continuance.
“If the defendant decides to ‘join team USA’ — i.e., ‘cooperate’ — there may be a lengthy continuance to allow for her period of cooperation,” Dusing said. “If a plea is offered and accepted and cooperation is part of the terms, any sentencing could be continued for a very long time – until after the trial of any co-defendants, typically.”
Dusing believes the federal investigation may be larger than Dennard, because the low dollar amount of the alleged corruption would not justify a four-month FBI investigation and the immense federal resources spent.
“More likely, Ms. Dennard is the ‘little fish’ that is the first step toward getting the ‘bigger fish’ that are the real ultimate goal,” Dusing said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter, who is deputy criminal chief in the Cincinnati office, is prosecuting Dennard. She won a conviction in the high-profile minority contracting fraud case against Evans Landscaping owner Doug Evans in December 2018. She appeared in court with FBI agent Matt Singer.