Butler County auditor corruption investigation continues after latest charge

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds has been charged with another count in an investigation into whether he used his office for personal gain, this one involving Lakota Local Schools and Four Bridges Country Club.

A Butler County grand jury approved a sixth felony charge on Wednesday of having an unlawful interest in a public contract against Reynolds. That new charge is a fourth-degree felony, and the indictment indicates it stems from actions in January 2017.

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones said the new charge carries a possible 18-month prison term. The charge involves money Reynolds’ office routinely returns to taxing districts each year that are not needed to pay for his office’s services.

“It basically started with Roger Reynolds and a group of people approaching the Lakota Schools, one of their administrators, the people in charge of the money, and were basically talking about the money that they return to the schools,” Jones said. “He made a recommendation and tried to coerce them into taking the money they were going receive and he tried to encourage them to build something for the Four Bridges golf course.”

He said the charge involves family members, and Reynolds as a member of the golf club, where he also lives.

“I told you in the beginning this investigation has not finished and is not finished as we speak,” Jones said Wednesday. “It’s a very sad day.”

In September 2017, Reynolds’ office returned $2 million to all taxing districts and $459,498 to Lakota. The fees are monies the auditor’s office receives from the state for calculating and distributing real estate taxes from levies to local governments. The auditor’s office doesn’t need all the fees to operate.

“I believe as Sheriff Jones had said there may have been an approach but we did not do anything with it, we did not enter into any agreement,” said Lakota spokeswoman Betsy Fuller.

Jones said they also are still investigating an incident involving dirt and tax reductions.

Reynolds initially was indicted Feb. 9 on five counts for bribery and leveraging his public office to further his own interests. He now faces four felonies and two misdemeanors counts. His trial is scheduled for Aug. 15.

The bribery charge in that group of six is a third-degree felony. It carries a potential sentence of nine months to three years and a fine up to $10,000. The other three felonies are fourth degree unlawful interest in a public contract. Those carry penalties of six to nine months.

Jones said if Reynolds is found guilty on all counts, the maximum penalty would be seven-and-a-half years in prison. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s Office is handling the case. His office would not comment on how this new charge might affect the trial date.

Neither Reynolds nor his attorney would comment on the latest allegation but have maintained his innocence from the beginning.

“Mr. Reynolds has never solicited, accepted, or paid any bribes, and he has never used his position, authority, or influence to improperly benefit himself or anyone else. Mr. Reynolds has served the Butler County community with honor for the past 19 years, without even a hint of impropriety,” the statement reads.

Reynolds has maintained he is the victim of a political witch hunt by the state to punish him for challenging a state-mandated property value hike.

Responding to Jones’ comments, Reynolds’ attorney said in a statement:

“It is highly unusual for law enforcement officials to make public statements about an ongoing investigation or a pending criminal case, since such statements can often undermine an investigation or improperly influence potential jurors. Sheriff Jones would undoubtedly agree that criminal defendants are innocent until proven guilty, and are entitled to a trial by a jury of their peers who are unbiased and not tainted by the public statements of elected law enforcement officials. As to the substance of Sheriff Jones’ remarks, we have no comment.”

Yost petitioned the Ohio Supreme Court to have Reynolds suspended from office while the criminal charges are pending, but the special panel assigned to make that decision found it wasn’t warranted. It is unclear whether a new suspension petition might be in the offing. Reynolds is running for reelection in November.

Jones’ office began investigating Reynolds last summer after receiving complaints about his development dealings and efforts to help his father.

An investigation overview from the sheriff’s office Butler County Sheriff’s Office said developers Brian Jimenez and Tim Haid have written notes and a phone call recording in which 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.”

The Journal-News listened to the 15-minute recorded call Reynolds’ attorney attached to a court filing, and there is no mention of a the $200,000 consulting fee. The two talked about getting sewer in the area, and Reynolds — who grew up there — helping to the get the neighbors on board with a new development.

They discussed working together to get the entire area redeveloped, and there was a reference to a previous conversation between the two.

“Yeah, figure out somehow, something to work together. You know, I put something, I’ve thrown something out to you, I don’t know, it’s been two or three months ago working with you and trying to help you get everything you need down there as far as support,” Reynolds said on the call.

At the end of the conversation, Reynolds said, “If you want to work together on it, let’s do it. If not, then that’s OK, too.”

The sheriff’s office summary said Jimenez and Haid were trying to develop a property on Hamilton Mason Road owned by 88-year-old Gerald Parks — who filed a civil lawsuit against Reynolds in September — for a senior living community that would rival a development on Reynolds’ father’s land across the street.

Jones said the Ohio Ethics Commission is involved and he believes the state auditor’s office is conducting a “forensic audit” on Reynold’s office. Auditor Keith Faber’s Press Secretary Marc Kovac told the Journal-News that office isn’t involved in this issue.

“I checked with our special investigations unit and we are not doing an investigation or a special audit or a forensic audit on the Butler County auditor,” he said. “We have not been involved in that case.”

The state auditor has been involved in some alleged improprieties in Madison Twp. and Jones also announced he is considering launching a criminal investigation into those officials. The state audit found the fiscal officer was required to pay the township back more than $25,000 for fees charged for late tax filings and bill payments.

The audit also called out state Rep. Thomas Hall, a former Madison Twp. trustee and Trustee Alan Daniel for voting on ordinances in 2018 and 2019 when they should have abstained. Hall’s father Kent Hall serves as fire chief and Daniel’s son Todd is the road supervisor.

Jones said there were 25 referrals to the Ohio Ethics Commission about Hall and “we’re looking at that and we’re looking at the possibility of an investigation,” Jones said.

“My recommendation to the people that get elected to these positions, it’s not your money and you can’t benefit yourself and be involved in these types things … It’s very simple ask the prosecutor, don’t ask the janitor if it’s OK.”

The Journal-News reported Hall consulted township Administrator Todd Farler before voting on matters regarding the fire department. After Jones’ statements Wednesday he told the Journal-News he is asking the state ethics commission himself to opine on his votes, but he never voted on anything to benefit himself or his father.

“This whole thing is ridiculous, completely ridiculous,” Hall said. “For the sheriff to want to an investigation I think it’s wrong, using his office for political motives when there’s an election 19 days from today. The sheriff is a bully and he’ll continue to do what he wants to do until people stand up to him.”

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