Judge rules bribery lawsuit against Liberty Twp. trustee will proceed

Liberty Twp. Trustee Tom Farrell. CONTRIBUTED

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Liberty Twp. Trustee Tom Farrell. CONTRIBUTED

Liberty Twp. Trustee Tom Farrell is still on the hook in a lawsuit claiming a $500 campaign contribution he accepted from Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds was a bribe to deny a development proposal.

Gerald Parks and his daughter sued Reynolds, Farrell and Liberty Twp. last fall alleging bribery, ethics violations and interference in the development of a senior living community on land he owns in the township.

The bulk of the lawsuit concerns Parks’ business dealings with Reynolds. Farrell and the township filed a motion to dismiss in October. All seven Butler County Common Pleas Court judges recused themselves from the case, so visiting Judge Dennis J. Langer is presiding over the case.

He ruled Wednesday the township has sovereign immunity and released it from the litigation. Farrell is still on the hook.

“This court is not persuaded that plaintiff’s ethics claim rests upon an unsupported bribery allegation,” Langer wrote in the 38-page order that also nullified other arguments to toss the case.

Farrell told the Journal-News that lawsuits “are one of the risks of being an elected official as it is oftentimes the last resort for those who fail to meet our zoning standards.”

“I have spent my entire life building a reputation of honesty and fairness, I have heard zoning cases for almost 20 years, I have always, and will always, listen to both sides and follow the rules and regulations set forth by the ORC, our zoning, and our comprehensive vision plan,” he said. “Please do not let false accusations against me affect a reputation that took a lifetime to build. I am confident that these false allegations will be dismissed and my reputation for honesty and fairness supported.”

The lawsuit also named Buck Rumpke, a member of the Butler County Planning and Zoning Commission. Both Farrell and Rumpke were running for election for the trustee board when the lawsuit was filed. Retired Trustee Christine Matacic and Trustee Steve Schramm, who also voted to deny the senior living development, were not named in the lawsuit.

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The portion of the lawsuit that directly involves Farrell is a $1.35 million purchase offer by Lancaster Land LLP so Clover Group could build the 55+ senior community. The county planning commission gave conditional approval by a 3 to 2 vote to the plan in January 2021, but Rumpke voted no.

The Liberty Twp. plan commission heard the case at the end of January and Reynolds spoke in opposition to the development, citing greenspace and other concerns, according to the suit. It alleges Reynolds made a $500 contribution to Farrell’s reelection campaign March 4. The Liberty Plan Commission voted 4 to 1 against the project in April.

The trustees heard the Clover Development case in May — Rumpke allegedly voiced opposition at that meeting — and denied it. The lawsuit alleged Reynolds “secured a thing of value” with Farrell’s vote to deny, because it would help push through a similar development on property his parents’ own across the street in West Chester Twp.

That development has Reynolds in trouble for another reason. 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.

Reynolds is under a criminal investigation into whether he has done anything wrong in trying to get $1 million in public funds for the mandated road improvements.

Attorney General Dave Yost has assigned investigators with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation to assist with the criminal investigation. The situation has also been referred to the Ohio Ethics Commission but that entity cannot .

“We’re still working on it, we’re working with BCI and their agents, coordinating efforts there and speaking on a regular basis with the special prosecutor and taking his advise,” Butler County Chief Deputy Anthony Dwyer said Thursday.

There are a number of allegations in the civil lawsuit that only pertain to Reynolds. His attorney Brody Conover filed an answer to the complaint — which is basically a paragraph-by-paragraph denial with few if any details — but has not asked for the case to be dismissed. He told the Journal-News he can’t comment on how the ruling regarding Farrell might impact how he plans to proceed.

Park’s attorney did not return calls seeking comment.

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