Friday, October 23, 2020

Former Cincinnati Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard pleads guilty to fraud

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About two hours before former Cincinnati City Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard pleaded guilty to federal charges, she posted a message on Facebook.

“I never looked for the world to make me,” she wrote. “Therefore the world will never break me…” She ended with the hashtag, #BendButDontBreak, which she has used in several posts since her arrest.

Shortly after 2 p.m. Monday, in a hearing that lasted about 30 minutes, Dennard pleaded guilty to accepting $15,000 as part of a scheme to exchange her votes for money.

During the hearing in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati, Dennard answered many of the judge’s questions with a simple, “Yes, Ma’am.” When Judge Susan Dlott asked Dennard how she wanted to plead, Dennard responded, “I plead guilty.”

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Dennard, 41, had already signed a plea agreement in which she pleaded guilty to honest services wire fraud, meaning she schemed to defraud citizens and the city council of their right to honest services. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

But both sides have agreed that Dennard’s sentence will likely fall between 2 and 2½ years in prison. Dlott will make the final decision. That’s not expected until the end of the year, she said.

Dennard’s mother was in the courtroom supporting her. Later, as proceedings continued, she was joined by The Rev. Nelson Pierce and local activist Iris Roley.

After the hearing, Dennard’s attorney, Marty Pinales, declined comment.

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“We will be making a full statement at a later point,” Pinales said. “The facts will come out.”

Dennard admitted she obtained approximately $15,000 in connection with a scheme that lasted between August and December 2019. She will have to repay the money, according to the plea agreement.

Dennard also had been facing charges of bribery and attempted extortion. Those charges were dropped as part of the plea.

The head of the FBI’s Cincinnati field office, Chris Hoffman, said the conviction serves as a reminder that the agency considers investigating public corruption a top priority. Hoffman highlighted the issue when he was named special agent in charge earlier this year.

“It is completely unacceptable for an elected official to solicit money in exchange for official actions,” Hoffman said in a statement. “We will continue to vigorously investigate fraud and abuse in order to hold public officials accountable.”

David DeVillers, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, tweeted Monday night: “Ms. Dennard treated a bribe as if it was a perk of the job. The corruption itself is almost overshadowed by how shockingly entitled she seemed to the bribe.”

According to court documents, on two separate days in September 2019, Dennard requested and received a $10,000 cashier’s check, then $5,000 in cash from an attorney to pay for her personal expenses.

In exchange for the money, documents say “Dennard promised and did provide favorable official action on behalf of” the attorney’s unnamed client – including voting on matters before city council.

After receiving the $15,000, Dennard continued to solicit additional money from the attorney, saying that “future help relating to official action…was tied to additional payment,” documents say.

In a Nov. 4, 2019 text message to the attorney, which is included in the indictment, Dennard said: “I could really use your help. It’s kind of urgent to get it today. Happy to help you. But need yours too.”

Dennard was arrested by FBI agents the morning of Feb. 25 on her way to a Downtown Starbucks. After appearing before a federal magistrate judge, she was released the same day. She resigned her position March 2.

In a Facebook Live video posted about three hours after Monday’s court hearing ended, Dennard told supporters that unnamed people were “rooting for my demise.”

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Those who know her, Dennard said, “know I’m one of the most fair and honest and kind people that you’ll ever meet.”

She also took on critics, saying they were trying “to break my spirit and break me.”

“Because I don’t live by their validation,” she said, “I won’t die by their disapproval.”

About her case, she said “things are not always the way they seem.”

She didn’t elaborate and explained she could not yet discuss the case.

“Just know I’m a very risk-averse person,” she said, apparently referring to the fact that she pleaded guilty instead of taking the case to trial, where she would have faced multiple charges and potentially a longer sentence.

“I’m just trying to do what’s best for me, for my family,” she said, “and the ability to just get things behind me and move on and do what’s next.”

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