CINCINNATI — Tia Brown was hopeful that former Cincinnati City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard could infuse some energy — and city dollars — into the empty storefronts on Freeman Avenue in the West End to create a lively entertainment district.
Then FBI agents arrested Dennard on public corruption charges on Feb. 25, accusing her of selling votes in a development project. She resigned a week later. A grand jury formally indicted her Wednesday afternoon.
As city leaders attempt to measure the scope of Dennard’s alleged corruption, the beneficiaries of her proposed projects, like Brown, wonder if they have a future.
“We were sure it was going to die," after Dennard’s arrest, Brown said of the proposed entertainment district.
Brown is the community engagement director of Seven Hills Neighborhood House, a community development corporation trying to spur revitalization in the West End. She's also secretary of the West End Community Council.
Councilman Greg Landsman likes the idea of a multicultural entertainment district somewhere in the city.
But he and Councilman David Mann say there are too many “red flags” and unanswered questions about Dennard’s ordinance on the project — the "Freeman District" — to allow it to move forward.
In fact, Landsman said he has concerns about all of Dennard’s votes and legislation.
Landsman asked city officials last week for an internal review to determine what, if any, fallout exists from her alleged corruption.
“I definitely agree that we should do as you suggest to ensure the integrity of the administrative and legislative process, as well as to help rebuild the credibility of the government,” City Manager Patrick Duhaney wrote in an email to Landsman on March 4.
Duhaney wrote that he would work with Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething and Clerk of Council Melissa Autry, “to review legislation for any concerns.”
Duhaney’s office did not return a request for comment on the status of that review.
“We need to make sure that we’re fully transparent and if there were irregularities or issues, that we make that public and we make changes if necessary,” Landsman said.
The abrupt way that FBI agents arrested Dennard, nabbing her at a Starbucks two hours before she was scheduled to lead an Equity, Inclusion, Youth & the Arts Committee meeting at City Hall, also raised questions.
Former federal prosecutor Ben Dusing, who is now a defense attorney, knows firsthand how the FBI makes white-collar crime arrests. He said defendants are usually allowed to self-report to court with their attorneys.
“Unless a target of an investigation presents a risk to the public safety or a risk of flight, there’s really no reason to charge and arrest someone in that manner,” Dusing said. “You don’t see public corruption targets being arrested at the Downtown Starbucks every day. You just don’t.”
The fact that it did happen to Dennard could mean that FBI agents determined “this public official was corrupted and her continued participation in the democratic process would threaten the integrity of that process,” Dusing said. “I could see that being a rationale for doing as was done here.”
But Dusing, who has no ties to the case, added, “There could be other legitimate reasons, in fairness. You just don’t know.”
The last ordinance that Dennard sponsored weeks before her arrest was to take $500,000 from the city’s unspent winter weather reserves and use it to buy property for her proposed development, the "Freeman District" on Freeman Avenue.
The ordinance does not state which properties would be purchased, the scope of the project or how it would help the neighborhood. It only stated that the city would work, “in conjunction with The Port.”
When WCPO contacted The Port CEO Laura Brunner, she said: “This is the first we are learning of the ordinance.”
The Port, a government-funded economic development group, routinely helps redevelop city neighborhoods.
“I’m not surprised The Port would be mentioned," Mann said. "I am surprised The Port didn’t know anything about it."
The idea for the Freeman District as a black entertainment district “came out of Dennard’s office,” Brown said. “She approached me about it.”
Brown said she had one meeting with Dennard, an aide from her office, a business owner and a consultant with The Port to talk about the entertainment district. Since the idea was still in its infancy, she said few people knew about it.
“We were excited to learn about the interest and the effort and even the opportunity for potential funding from the city,” Brown said. “We’d love to see Freeman Street just activated more with storefronts actually being storefronts and not apartments."
Once the solicitor drafted Dennard’s ordinance on the Freeman District, Mann said it was so vague that he had to ask for more information before deciding whether to place it on the Budget and Finance Committee agenda for a vote.
“I’m not interested in taking up the possible appropriation of a half million dollars when I have no idea what the purpose would be of the appropriation,” Mann said.
In response to Mann’s question, Dennard issued a two-paragraph statement on Feb. 20 criticizing the city for a staggering wealth gap between black and white communities.
“There is a clear history of redlining in our city that has led to and continues to perpetuate a racial wealth gap today," she wrote. "Black communities continue to be under-resourced and under-valued. There needs to be focus and intentionality with development that attracts and retains black people while building black wealth."
She touted the Freeman District as a transformative investment led by the black community and black business owners.
“It’s a vision of black-owned entertainment, dining, and living right in the heart of our city," she wrote. "Our rhetoric regarding inclusion and diversity in the city of Cincinnati must be followed up by action."
Mann found her statement still lacked specifics, so he left it off the agenda. That meant it would die without a vote.
“Before I even want to take up the idea of spending a half million dollars, tell me please … exactly what is it you want to do and what is the public purpose and what’s the public benefit,” Mann said.
Dennard's statement was added to the calendar for the full City Council meeting on Feb. 26. City Hall insiders say this usually happens when council members can’t get a vote on their legislation in committee, so they try to boost public support for their idea in a full council setting.
The FBI arrested Dennard the day before that meeting, on Feb. 25.
When WCPO analyzed the owners of property on Freeman Avenue, it discovered several parcels had been bought in the past year by limited liability corporations, which can make it difficult to determine the true property owners.
“I don’t criticize somebody for looking for an investment opportunity. That’s not the issue,” Mann said. “The issue is whether there are connections that would seem … improper.”
Landsman also has questions.
“All of those are legitimate red flags and so I think we have to discard the ordinance, but not the idea,” Landsman said. “The idea is to provide more opportunities for black and brown businesses in the city of Cincinnati. That we have to do.”
Landsman says he will ask the city manager to prepare a report about how other cities have created multicultural entertainment districts.
“What are the best practices, what has worked in other cities, what does the community say, what are the best locations … what are the obstacles, pros and cons, so that we can make an informed decision about how to do this,” Landsman said.
Brown is hopeful that Landsman will still consider city investment in the West End.
“Whether it's black-owned businesses or homes that are of an affordable level for people who make $56,000 a year, we need as much support at the city level as possible in the West End,” Brown said. “If there is a council member out there who wants to take the reigns and help with this, that would be a wonderful thing.