Butler County trustee prompts new lawsuit legislation

Butler County officials have raised a ruckus in Columbus this year over skyrocketing property values and now the civil lawsuit against former auditor Roger Reynolds has spawned new legislation to curb some civil lawsuits.

There have been a couple hearings on House Bill 281 that would prevent what happened to Liberty Twp. Trustee Tom Farrell in the civil lawsuit filed against Reynolds by a disgruntled resident. Rep. Bill Seitz testified last month on the issue before the Civil Justice Committee, asking them to support tweaking existing law.

“Clever lawyers have now begun to bring civil suits based on 2307.60 against persons who have never even been charged, let alone convicted, of any criminal act. In one such suit against a local Butler County township trustee, over $80,000 in legal fees, taxpayer funds, were expended to successfully defend the trustee against a case brought by a disappointed real estate developer,” Seitz testified before the hearing.

“The developer alleged that the trustee’s vote to reject a zone change was based on the trustee’s receipt of a lawful campaign contribution which the disappointed developer recharacterized as an illegal bribe. The co-called “bribe” was never the subject of any criminal investigation let alone charge or conviction, but the trustee had to be drug through the mud for a long period of time over these unfair accusations.”

Seitz told the Journal-News when he met with Farrell and Rep. Thomas Hall about a year ago he agreed to take up the fight to fix the ambiguous statute that allowed Farrell to be pulled into the lawsuit on a “completely bogus set of circumstances.”

He said civil lawsuits can still be filed for many things involving criminal behavior.

“The only thing we’re doing is saying you cannot sue under that statute absent a criminal conviction or guilty plea,” Seitz said. “That’s it in a nutshell.”

Farrell was sued in a civil lawsuit filed against Reynolds by West Chester Twp. resident Gerald Parks in September 2021. Parks and his daughter sued Reynolds, Farrell, Liberty Twp. and Buck Rumpke, a member of the Butler County Planning and Zoning Commission alleging bribery, ethics violations and interference in the development of a senior living community on land he owns in the township.

The portion of the lawsuit involving Farrell called into question a $500 campaign contribution Reynolds made allegedly to secure Farrell’s vote denying a development deal for Parks’ property.

Parks’ attorney Chip Goff dismissed Farrell from the suit, telling the Journal-News he “is not the defendant to focus on” in August 2022. Rumpke was also dismissed but the lawsuit is ongoing against Reynolds, although the bulk of the charges have been dismissed.

When he was freed from the litigation, Farrell told the Journal-News he knew he had a “snowball’s chance in hell” but vowed to get the law changed because even though he wasn’t the prime target, lawsuits can go on for years and “you have no ability to defend yourself, you’re considered guilty until proven innocent.”

“My opinion on civil legal process, on the other hand, is something that I believe needs to be fixed, and I will be pursing the options to do so,” Farrell said. “People suing in civil cases need some accountability for their actions.”

He told the Journal-News he was thrilled the legislature is attempting to make a change. He said he emailed the township’s attorney Scott Phillips and asked his opinion of the bill.

“He said no it isn’t, it isn’t going to get you exactly what you wanted, but it’s a good bill and it’s a great step in the right direction,” Farrell said. “He said I told you it’s baby steps. After you saying you had a snowball’s chance in hell and that you like those odds, this is a huge step in the right direction.”

He still wants it to go further and reimburse people for attorneys fees paid to defend themselves if they are exonerated. When Goff dismissed the lawsuit the bill defending Farrell totaled $67,906, the township’s insurance company had paid $36,349 and the township had picked up $31,557.

Seitz said he knows that’s what Farrell wants but “the American system is generally such that each party pays his own legal fees.”

Goff couldn’t be reached for comment on the legislation.

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