CINCINNATI — U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott sentenced former Cincinnati City Council member Tamaya Dennard to 18 months in prison on Tuesday for her role in the first of three corruption scandals to rock City Hall this year.
Dennard must also repay the $15,000 she accepted in bribes.
Dennard’s sentence is suspended until March 1 because of the pandemic. It may be suspended further, depending on the state of the virus in March. Dlott also sentenced Dennard to three years of supervised release after she serves her prison term.
"Public officials must know that public corruption will not be tolerated," said Dlott.
Dlott said she listened to every phone call and read every text message and gave the case more consideration than any over which she has presided in 25 years. She also read all 60 letters that Dennard's supporters sent to her, as well as a few from her opponents.
"I find it really a tragedy that someone with your talent and ability had done something like this,” Dlott said. "Bribery is a very serious offense by a public officer, and yet you have done so much good."
Dennard told the judge it was never her intention to use her seat for power or personal gain and that she let her personal struggles get the best of her.
"I owe the city, and what I did eats at me. It will always eat at me,” Dennard said. "I took an oath to serve the people of Cincinnati ... but I put my personal needs before their interests."
The U.S. Probation Office recommended a sentence of 24 to 30 months in prison for Dennard, according to the pre-sentence report the office prepared in her case. The prosecution requested that sentence be served in prison.
Public corruption cases like this deter others from running for public office, unfairly taint honest elected leaders, and undermine the legitimacy of government, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Emily Glatfelter.
"These types of crimes pose a threat to society," Glatfelter said. "This country depends on honest representatives."
Glatfelter, who is also the lead prosecutor on the corruption cases against two other council members, said without meaningful consequences to elected leaders who take bribes, the public's trust "is just blind trust."
Yet Dennard’s attorney requested home confinement, in part because of COVID-19 fears. Her attorney also believes Dennard, a Democrat who won a council seat in a storybook election in 2017, had suffered enough.
“She has been publicly humiliated,” her attorney, Stephanie Kessler, wrote in a sentencing memo. “Not all defendants see their photo and their worst choices splashed over the media. It is difficult to deal with. She has lost friends and supporters.”
David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, spoke in court about his torn feelings toward Dennard.
On one hand, Singleton said he was deeply disappointed in Dennard, especially since his daughter interned in Dennard's office and he had sent a client to Dennard for mentoring. He also worried that his organization would be sullied after her arrest because Dennard had done volunteer work there.
"I worried that her association with us when she got arrested was going to pull us down," Singleton said.
Yet Singleton still urged the judge to sentence Dennard to home confinement and community service, instead of prison.
"I voted for her because I believed she exemplified the very best in what we look for in our city leaders. And she disappointed me," Singleton said.
Dennard ran a low-budget campaign in 2017, winning a sixth-place finish to earn one of nine seats on Cincinnati City Council and becoming the president pro tem. Throughout her campaign, she used a folding chair to demonstrate how the powerless should fight for a political voice.
While on council, she fought for racial inclusion, affordable housing and for those experiencing homelessness, while also trying to be a role model to young people who were growing up in poverty.
FBI agents arrested Dennard on Feb. 25 near a Downtown Starbucks before a council committee meeting. Her fellow council members sat confused as they waited for her to appear and then were shocked as they learned of her arrest.
Her arrest rocked City Hall. At the time, longtime politicians said they could not remember a corruption scandal of this magnitude in the city's history.
Yet they were unaware of the scope of the FBI's probe, or that two more council members would be arrested on corruption charges -– Jeff Pastor and PG Sittenfeld –- months later. Federal prosecutors said the three cases are not related, but they demonstrate a "culture of corruption" at City Hall.
In a recent tweet, U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said Dennard "treated a bribe as if it was a perk of the job."
After her sentencing, Devillers tweeted again, saying he hoped Dennard's sentence "sends a message to those seeking to hold public office for their own benefit."
Know that there are honest and dedicated public servants in Ohio. I only hope that this sentence sends a message to those seeking to hold public office for their own benefit. The office holder serves the people the people do not serve the office holder. https://t.co/KHTpKNM0EN— David DeVillers (@USAttyDeVillers) November 24, 2020
Dennard stepped down on March 2, bowing to an ultimatum from Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters that more charges would follow unless she resigned.
Dennard pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud in June, admitting she took $15,000 for her vote on a development deal at The Banks.
A Cincinnati attorney who represented Hamilton County for decades on riverfront development matters, Tom Gabelman, was the cooperating witness who helped the FBI build a corruption case against Dennard after she approached him for $10,000 to pay for rent, attorneys fees and to place a down payment on a car, according to court documents.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a circumstance where you have a public official accepting a bribe because they needed to live on some level or they don’t have much money,” said former federal prosecutor Ben Dusing, who now is a criminal defense attorney.
When WCPO interviewed Dusing about Dennard's case, it was days before the FBI arrested Pastor. Dusing has since signed on as Pastor's attorney and is defending him against corruption charges.
Dennard, who is now working as a freelance journalist, wrote to Dlott asking for leniency. She blamed lifelong financial struggles for her decision to accept the bribes.
“I’m asking for you to see beyond my horrible mistake and know that I’ve lost more than prison will ever take from me,” Dennard wrote. “In a city where I was born, raised and walked the streets proudly, I’m relieved that wearing a mask hides me from a public who once admired me.”
But prosecutors pointed out in their memo to the judge that Dennard used more than $4,000 of the bribe money to take a vacation to Florida. They included screenshots taken from Dennard’s phone of her other recent trips to Israel and the Grand Canyon.
Glatfelter pointed out to the judge in court that Dennard continued to ask for more money from the informant on more than 10 occasions after she returned from her Florida vacation.
"He didn't give her more money because the FBI refused to give more money in this case," Glatfelter said.
Dennard defended the vacation in her letter to the judge.
“As a kid, we never could afford family vacations. The closest thing we did was to go from our neighborhood of College Hill to the Holiday Inn Holidome in Sharonville for a Saturday and Sunday twice,” she wrote. “I know the government will try to make a needed vacation a huge point of contention but there were points in my time at City Hall where I needed a police detail outside of my home simply because I was black and outspoken about fairness."
The felony conviction bans Dennard from ever serving as an elected leader in Ohio again.
“She knows that her conduct in this case squandered the work and dedication she put in to build herself into a candidate for elected positions,” Kessler wrote. “Not only is the felony record a barrier to publicly elected positions, it is likely to be a significant barrier for other future employment opportunities. It will be something she has to list, talk about, and come to terms with for the rest of her life.”