Butler County sheriff investigating county auditor over public funds requests

Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds is under investigation by the sheriff's office for allegedly trying to use his position to get TIF dollars from the county, Liberty and West Chester townships for road work that is needed so his dad can sell his property for development. MICHAEL D. PITMAN/STAFF
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Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds is under investigation by the sheriff's office for allegedly trying to use his position to get TIF dollars from the county, Liberty and West Chester townships for road work that is needed so his dad can sell his property for development. MICHAEL D. PITMAN/STAFF

Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds is under investigation for his alleged involvement in trying to get $1 million in public funds for mandated road improvements to facilitate the sale of his father’s property in West Chester Twp.

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones’ office is investigating whether Reynolds has done anything wrong while trying to help his father sell property for a new senior living development.

Reynolds’ father, Raymond, owns 25 acres along Hamilton Mason Road between Mauds Hughes and Cincinnati Dayton roads. The four parcels are valued at $459,370, according to the auditor’s website. The 122-unit senior living development called Red Oaks has received zoning approval from the West Chester trustees, but a major road improvement is one of the conditions for it moving forward.

According to email records obtained by the Journal-News, Reynolds has asked the county commissioners and trustees from West Chester and Liberty townships to provide tax increment financing dollars for the $1.1 million road improvement. Some of Reynolds’ emails were sent from his county work email account that identifies his elected position, and he sent others from his personal email account.

One email from county Water and Sewer Director Martha Shelby to county Administrator Judi Boyko says that Reynolds contacted her and said the developer was concerned about $862,512 in water capacity fees so he wanted to explore special capacity fees for “developments targeting” older residents.

The sheriff is investigating whether Reynolds’ involvement is an issue.

“I am doing the investigation, detectives are working diligently to get to the truth and to the facts,” Jones said. “We are working with the prosecutor’s office, it goes to the prosecutor’s office and we are also communicating with the ethics commission and we are interviewing other office holders.”

Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser told the Journal-News he cannot comment on the matter but wanted to “clarify the sheriff’s statement that he is working with the prosecutor’s office.”

“The sheriff is conducting his investigation and he is providing me with material for review,” Gmoser said.

Ohio Ethics Commission Executive Director Paul Nick told the Journal-News he cannot say whether the Reynolds issue has come before the commission or discuss whether there is a potential conflict of interest. But generally, “under the conflict of interest statute, the use of authority could include using your office to try and influence other officeholders.”

He said there are various penalties for violating ethics laws. The penalty for “use of authority” would be a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and/or up to six months in jail.

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Reynolds told the Journal-News he has no power over any other jurisdictions or offices and “obviously it’s the politics that’s going on in the county.”

“My understanding of the conflict rules prohibit any ‘official action or making decisions’ by me in the auditor’s office that would personally benefit me or my family,” Reynolds said. “All the requests have been made to other offices I don’t serve and have no authority (over). I plan to ask the ethics department for confirmation.”

Reynolds spoke in favor of the Red Oak development that would be built on his father’s land before the West Chester Twp. Zoning Commission on March 15, but there was no mention of a TIF or if public funds might be used and little discussion about required road improvements.

Reynolds did not speak during the meeting when the trustees granted approval on April 13 — he was in the audience — but met with staff, along with a representative from the developer Treplus Communities, about the potential TIF arrangement on Aug. 9.

“Staff met with Mr. (Roger) Reynolds and the developer of the Red Oak project to discuss the potential use of Cincinnati-Dayton Road TIF funds to pay for a safety improvement on Hamilton-Mason Road,” West Chester’s Director of Public Information and Engagement Barb Wilson said. “The public roadway improvement is being required for the Red Oak project to move forward.”

The Journal-News reached out to the original development representative Steven Hicks to ask why Reynolds was directly involved with TIF requests, as developers usually deal with governmental entities on their own. Hicks no longer works for the company. Patrick Morrell, the land acquisition director for Treplus, said he left about a month and a half ago.

“Normally we would have meetings with the city or township for the use of public funds,” he said. “Of course, yes.”

Morrell said he is familiar with the project and they “are in the preliminary stages of feasibility study,” so he can’t comment on whether the project can proceed without TIF financing.

The email chains with Boyko and Liberty Twp. Administrator Kristen Bitonte do not include communication with anyone from Treplus, only Reynolds.

All three Liberty Twp. trustees and West Chester Twp. Trustee Mark Welch told the Journal-News they had conversations with Reynolds about the TIF idea, and sheriff’s officials interviewed them. Welch said he told detectives he did not feel “coerced” and there is no “tit for tat” in West Chester.

“They asked me, ‘Did you feel pressured, was there any indication he was looking for a favor?’” Welch said. “I said, ‘No, not at all.’ We judge this thing based upon the merit in the township.”

West Chester Twp. Trustees Ann Becker and Lee Wong told the Journal-News they had no communications with Reynolds but the sheriff’s office questioned them.

Liberty Twp. Trustee Board President Tom Farrell said he had a conversation with Reynolds, and he told detectives nothing untoward occurred.

“I saw nothing inappropriate from my standpoint but hindsight being 20/20, I guess I should have thought of that as being a possible issue,” Farrell said. “But the way it was brought up to me in a casual atmosphere in front of people, there was nothing about it that seemed unordinary.”

Boyko and she has shared the TIF request with the commissioners, but there has been no discussion. Reynolds’ last email was sent on Aug. 27.

“Liberty is looking at two funding sources for their share of the road improvement. I will let you know as soon as I have confirmation from Liberty that funding has been identified,” Reynolds wrote. “Hopefully the commissioners will follow suit and approve funds from the Hamilton Mason rd (Road) TIF for the suggested improvements.”

Liberty Trustee Steve Schramm said he told Reynolds there might be two funding possibilities, but he has since discovered they are not options for covering the $455,000 contribution request.

There have also been dozens of emails with Butler County Engineer Greg Wilkens’ office dating back to 2018, but only relating to the work that needs to be done, not a potential TIF to finance it.

Commissioner T.C. Rogers told the Journal-News it’s “unbelievable” that Reynolds — who was first elected in 2008 — is allegedly involved in an issue like this.

“It’s the basics, if you’re an elected official you have a higher standard than an ordinary citizen,” Rogers said. “It’s unbelievable and I don’t know how, there is just no explanation for it. I’m surprised someone who talked for years against TIFs now is, ‘Well I want to do a TIF.’”