7 judges excused from ex-auditor Roger Reynolds’ criminal appeal

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

So far, seven appellate court judges have recused themselves from the 12th District criminal appeal by former Butler County auditor Roger Reynolds ,and a trial is looming in the $4 million civil lawsuit he is fighting.

All five of the 12th District Court of Appeals judges recused themselves from the appeal Reynolds filed in April and three judges from the 10th District Court of Appeals in Columbus were assigned to hear the case by the Ohio Supreme Court.

Now, two of those judges have removed themselves within the past couple weeks, Judge Michael C. Mentel and Judge Betsy Luper Schuster recused “pursuant to the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct.”

12th District Court Administrator Ben Manning told the Journal-News the five judges on his court stepped aside because “obviously they’ve all known Roger Reynolds for years.”

“Most courts and judges won’t tell you exactly why they recuse,” Manning said. “In Columbus I would just guess it’s probably somebody is involved with one of the law firms representing somebody on the case. Generally they won’t tell you, but judges have all kinds of reasons for recusing.”

While it can’t be known for sure, according to his biography on the court website, before Mentel joined the court in February 2021, he was a partner at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP in Columbus. Reynolds’ attorney Chad Ziepfel is a partner in the Cincinnati Taft office.

Schuster’s bio is brief but gives her work history, including one job as a hearing officer for various government agencies between 2007 and 2010 and as an assistant state attorney general from 1999 to 2003.

Reynolds fought and lost a 19-month legal battle — state hearing officers were involved — with the state tax commissioner over the 2020 property value hikes. Attorney General Dave Yost’s office prosecuted the case against Reynolds.

Reynolds was found guilty in Butler County Common Pleas Court of fourth-degree felony unlawful interest in a public contract on Dec. 21, 2023. A jury decided he was not guilty on three other felony charges and one misdemeanor charge.

The jury found fault with the elected official trying to convince the Lakota Schools to build a golf academy at the golf course community where his family lives — using excess auditor fees Reynolds routinely returned to taxing bodies.

Visiting Judge Daniel Hogan sentenced him to 30 days in jail but stayed it pending this appeal and five years probation. He also fined him $5,000 and ordered he serve 100 hours of community service. All seven Common Pleas Court judges recused themselves in that case.

Ziepfel in his appeals brief said the guilty verdict was unfounded and sets dangerous precedent.

“If affirmed, this case will open up to criminal liability every brainstorm that a public officials has about how to spend public funds,” Ziepfel wrote. “No case has swept so broadly. For good reason. The statute does not permit it.”

Special prosecutor Brad Tammaro with Yost’s office filed a response Aug. 11 saying Reynolds’ plan went beyond just brainstorming.

“Appellant characterizes his actions as ‘the mere whisper of a brainstorming session,’ when in reality Appellant conducted multiple meetings with the Lakota School Board treasurer, the COO, an athletic director and the school district’s attorney, at his official office and at their official office, during which he proposed at least three different variations on the agreement,” Tammaro wrote.

Reynolds has been paying his own legal bills for the criminal proceedings but the taxpayers have picked up a large share of the tab for a civil lawsuit that spawned the criminal case. The civil lawsuit filed against Reynolds by 88-year-old Gerald Parks started in September 2021 and the legal bills total $140,434 from Oct. 2021 through June 30.

The county paid $100,000 which is the deductible and now the insurance company is paying the rest. The case is set for trial beginning Oct. 30.

The claims in that case have evolved — and other defendants dismissed — and now both sides have asked visiting Judge Dennis Langer to settle the matter in their favor ahead of the trial.

The two main charges are that Reynolds used his office and political clout to doom three development deals — worth $1.3 to $1.35 million each — and removed agricultural tax breaks from Parks’ land. He is charged individually and in his capacity as auditor.

Reynolds claims he has statutory immunity because he was a public official at the time.

Parks’ attorney Chip Goff told the Journal-News previously the not-guilty verdicts in the charges involving his client’s claims won’t adversely impact his case.

“The burden of proof the jury must apply in a civil trial is a preponderance of the evidence. It is a much lower standard than that required of a criminal trial which is reasonable doubt,” Goff said. “The facts and evidence presented to a jury in a criminal trial may result in a not guilty verdict for a defendant, but those same facts and evidence presented to a different jury in a civil trial may result in the same defendant being found civilly liable for damages.”

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