The Ohio Attorney General says money did not have to change hands for a felony bribery charge against Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds, who allegedly solicited $200,000 from a developer to guide a development that would benefit his family.
Attorney General Dave Yost filed documents Monday with the Ohio Supreme Court officially asking for suspension proceedings to begin against Reynolds for using his office to benefit his family. The documents include a recitation of the facts that brought about three felony and two misdemeanor charges against the auditor.
Attached to the suspension request is an investigation overview from the Butler County Sheriff’s Office.
It says developers Brian Jimenez and Tim Haid have written notes and a recording of a phone call where Reynolds allegedly asked for a $200,000 “cash payment” to serve as a “consultant and use his political influence to get a TIF, tax increment financing, assigned to an area of Hamilton Mason Road in Butler County to assist in the development of properties along the road.”
Part of that “consulting” deal apparently also included the developers paying $500,000 for a 2- to-3-acre parcel Reynolds owns — that was valued at $21,000 by his office — in the area to facilitate development. The sheriff’s report indicated after the development was denied by the the county and Liberty Twp. “they feel this is directly connected to them not paying the consulting fee to Roger Reynolds.”
The AG’s office obtained a 3rd-degree felony indictment for bribery on this issue.
Yost was at an event at the University of Dayton Law School on Tuesday, and when the Journal-News asked how it can be bribery since no money changed hands, he replied:
“The definition of bribery is more than just, I hand cash to you, but I need to not ethically try this case in the court of public opinion, but in the court of law,” Yost said. “So we will produce all the evidence; this has been a months long investigation about this, there’s a lot more to come out.”
Reynolds has allegedly been working to help his dad sell property on Hamilton Mason Road for a senior living community and while it received zoning approval from West Chester Twp. it requires extensive road work. So he is accused of trying to use his position to convince officials in Butler County, Liberty and West Chester townships to use TIF money for the project.
Part of the criminal case is intertwined with a civil lawsuit filed by 88-year-old Gerald Parks, who claims Reynolds interfered with several offers he had for his land in that area for a competing development. Liberty Twp. Trustee Tom Farrell is also named in the lawsuit that claims Reynolds made a $500 campaign contribution for his re-election last year, in exchange for denying Parks’ development.
The sheriff’s report does not mention Farrell.
“I have said all along that I did nothing improper with regard to the Hamilton Mason Road development. Yesterday’s filing by the Ohio Attorney General makes it clear that I’ve been telling the truth,” Farrell told the Journal-News. “I hope the public hears this message as clearly – and as loudly – as they heard the unsubstantiated allegations.”
The report does reference a $1,000 donation Reynolds allegedly offered to make to West Chester Twp. Trustee Mark Welch’s re-election campaign. It indicates the two men discussed the TIF proposal. It said the donation was never made.
The Journal-News asked Yost why campaign donations were part of this investigation, elected officials give cash to each other all the time for their campaigns, “the question is whether the donation is made to procure something, so if politician A gives to politician B because he believes in what politician B believes in then that’s perfectly fine and appropriate.”
Welch told the Journal-News he did receive a $500 donation from Reynolds — after detectives interviewed him — during a campaign event Oct. 17. It was well after the development deal — that requires roadwork for final approval — was approved by the trustees. He said local politicians routinely give each other contributions, Reynolds, the sheriff and other county officials have donated to him.
“There’s nothing unusual that political people support other political people that are like-minded, there’s no impropriety here, none,” Welch said. “It was just looking to people who had donated in the past to support me this time, that’s all it was, there’s nothing else to read into anything like that. It wasn’t pay to play or anything.”
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor must appoint what is called a 3.16 Special Commission, comprised of three retired judges, but can’t do so until two weeks after she receives the request from the attorney general.
That panel must decide “whether the public official’s administration of, or conduct in the performance of the duties of, the official’s office, as covered by the charges, adversely affects the functioning of that office or adversely affects the rights and interests of the public and, as a result, whether the public official should be suspended from office.”
Reynolds’ attorney Chad Ziepfel told the Journal-News they will fight this all the way.
“We will be contesting the suspension,” Ziepfel said. “Not only are the allegations false, but they do not involve the Auditor’s Office or Mr. Reynolds’ work as the auditor. We hope that the community will not rush to judgment in this matter, and will wait for the full story to come out at trial.”
Reynolds was scheduled to be arraigned in Butler County Common Pleas Court on Thursday but that hearing was vacated because all seven common pleas judges recused themselves from the case. The high court will appoint a visiting judge to hear the case.
Yost’s Press Secretary Steve Irwin said Reynolds won’t be arrested, he will just appear when the visiting judge sets the arraignment.
Butler County Common Pleas Administrative Judge Keith Spaeth told the Journal-News the judges are following the rules of judicial conduct that directs them “to avoid impropriety or the appearance of impropriety.”
“No matter how a particular case may turn out, do we want the public to say hmm, I wonder if that happened because they know each other, because they’re fellow Republicans, because they’re fellow office holders, is that the reason this case went that way or that ruling went that way,” Spaeth said.
“The wonderful thing about an all-judge recusal is we bring someone in from out-of-county that doesn’t know any of these parties, that don’t have their bills for paper and furniture and computers reviewed by a fellow office holder, that doesn’t go to the same county functions, that hasn’t known the fellow office holder for years and years. And let that judge rule on the case.”
Reynolds on Monday asked the judge in the civil case to pause those proceedings while he fights his criminal charges.
“The criminal proceeding arises from the same underlying facts as this civil action,” the motion reads. “Mr. Reynolds and Liberty Way Farms should not be saddled with the impossible burden of attempting to present their civil defense in a manner that protects Mr. Reynolds Fifth Amendment rights.”
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