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Is former Cincinnati City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard considering plea deal in corruption case?

Former prosecutor: New filing suggests plea deal
Posted at 5:45 PM, Jun 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-17 19:32:29-04

CINCINNATI — Former Cincinnati City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard may be talking with federal prosecutors about a plea deal as her trial on public corruption charges looms in just over a month.

That’s according to former federal prosecutor Ben Dusing, who has years of experience with white-collar crime and lengthy FBI probes as an assistant U.S. Attorney and is now a high-profile criminal defense attorney.

Dusing reviewed a motion filed this week by Dennard’s attorney, Stephanie Kessler, asking the judge for a one-week delay in the deadline to file pretrial motions. The reason, she wrote, is because Dennard is “in discussions with the government.”

“It is absolutely industry jargon for this is headed in a certain direction, and yes, a plea is on the way. We just need time to work out the details,” Dusing said. “This means to me that she is going to plead guilty and likely be cooperating with the government in the case, which is a euphemistic term for helping them make their next case."

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Cincinnati city councilman Tamaya Dennard is sworn into office during the 2018 City of Cincinnati Mayoral and Council Inaugural Session at Cincinnati Music Hall ballroom on Tuesday, January 2, 2018. Photo by Leigh Taylor

Both Kessler and U.S. Attorney David DeVillers’ office declined to comment.

Prosecutors accuse Dennard, who had been council president pro tem, of trading council votes on development deals for $15,000 in 2019.

FBI agents arrested Dennard at a Downtown Starbucks on Feb. 25 before a Cincinnati City Council committee meeting. Her arrest shocked City Hall and soon local leaders were calling for her resignation.

Dennard resigned on March 2. A grand jury indicted her on March 11 with three counts of honest services wire fraud, two counts of bribery and two counts of attempted extortion. The charges carry a maximum penalty of 50 years in prison.

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, prosecutors said Dennard then booked two seats on a flight to Destin-Fort Walton Beach, where she stayed for roughly a week.

Dusing believes the federal investigation is 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.

Ben Dusing

"In my experience it would be very unusual for the government to dedicate so much time and effort and taxpayer dollars to a $15,000 municipal public corruption case,” Dusing said.

Dennard had never run for office before winning a city council seat in 2017. She started in politics as a volunteer for fellow Democrat P.G. Sittenfeld's 2011 city council campaign, then worked for him as an aide at City Hall.

If Dennard does sign a plea deal, Dusing said, it could be kept secret while she helps the FBI build a bigger case against others. Prosecutors will likely ask Dennard to testify in court against someone else, in exchange for recommending a lighter sentence to the judge, he said.

"It's a virtual certainty in my humble opinion, that this is just the beginning,” Dusing said.

Dennard’s trial is scheduled for July 27.