Road to Butler County auditor’s legal troubles complex

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds has been indicted for bribery and other charges related to trying to help his family develop land in West Chester Twp., and now he is fighting to keep his job amid calls for him to resign.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost last week asked the Ohio Supreme Court to begin suspension proceedings against Reynolds because he has been indicted on three felony and two misdemeanor charges. If he is found guilty he faces up to 7 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.

During an event at the University of Dayton Law School, Yost said Reynolds should just resign.

“Here’s Dave’s rule for politicians: You don’t get anything out of your official job other than your paycheck and sense of a job well done serving the public, that’s it,” Yost told the Journal-News.

“You get something else, you’re skating right up on the line and probably over it. I’m afraid that the auditor has compromised the public trust to the point he can no longer serve as the watchdog of that county.”

Investigation details revealed

Attached to the suspension request is an investigation overview from the Butler County Sheriff’s Office.

It says developers Brian Jimenez and Tim Haid have written notes and a recording of a phone call 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.”

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’ dad’s land across the street.

Part of the “consulting” deal apparently also included the developers paying $500,000 for a 2-acre parcel Reynolds owns — that was valued at $21,000 by his office — adjacent to Parks’ property. He allegedly told them the property was needed for green space. When the developers refused to deal with him, “Reynolds made clear to a representative of the company that he would use his power to stop the development.”

The AG’s office obtained a 3rd-degree felony indictment for bribery on this issue.

When the Journal-News asked how it can be bribery since no money changed hands, Yost replied:

“The definition of bribery is more than just, I hand cash to you, but I need to not ethically try this case in the court of public opinion, but in the court of law,” Yost said. “So we will produce all the evidence; this has been a months long investigation about this, there’s a lot more to come out.”

Reynolds’ attorney issued this statement after the indictments came down:

“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.

“He is proud of reforming the Auditor’s office, restoring trust with the citizens, and fighting for fair property valuations. Mr. Reynolds will vigorously defend himself against these charges, and looks forward to continuing in public service for years to come.”

Other felony allegations

The other felony charges are 4th degree felonies involving Reynolds allegedly trying to secure $1.1 million in TIF funding for Hamilton Mason Road improvements necessary for the sale of his father’s property for a senior living community.

The 122-unit senior living development called Red Oaks received zoning approval from the West Chester trustees, but a major road improvement to deal with the narrow railroad underpass known as a “mousehole” is one of the conditions for it moving forward.

According to email records obtained by the Journal-News, Reynolds asked the county commissioners and trustees from West Chester and Liberty townships to provide tax increment financing dollars for the road improvement. The emails have either been directly from Reynolds or are conversations about the development. Some of Reynolds’ emails were sent from his county work email account that identifies his elected position, and others he sent others from his personal email account.

County Administrator Judi Boyko said she 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.”

One email from county Water and Sewer Director Martha Shelby to 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.

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.

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.

The sheriff’s report singled out text messages about the TIF with Liberty Twp. Trustee Steve Schramm. It states when detectives spoke with him “he stated he advised Roger Reynolds that he felt they were close to crossing a line ‘politically’ that he was not comfortable with.”

“Since it appears that I’m going to be an active participant in the criminal case with Roger Reynolds, I think the citizens of Liberty are best served with my silence until this plays out further,” Schramm told the Journal-News.

Campaign donations questioned

The sheriff’s investigation report referenced a $1,000 donation Reynolds allegedly offered to make to Welch’s re-election campaign. It indicates the two men discussed the TIF proposal. It said the donation was never made.

The report does not mention a $500 donation to Liberty Twp. Trustee Tom Farrell that is part of the civil lawsuit filed by Parks.

“I have said all along that I did nothing improper with regard to the Hamilton Mason Road development. Yesterday’s filing by the Ohio Attorney General makes it clear that I’ve been telling the truth,” Farrell told the Journal-News. “I hope the public hears this message as clearly — and as loudly — as they heard the unsubstantiated allegations.”

The Journal-News asked Yost why campaign donations were part of this investigation, elected officials give cash to each other all the time for their campaigns, “the question is whether the donation is made to procure something, so if politician A gives to politician B because he believes in what politician B believes in then that’s perfectly fine and appropriate.”

Welch told the Journal-News he did receive a $500 donation from Reynolds — after detectives interviewed him — during a campaign event Oct. 17. It was well after the development deal — that requires roadwork for final approval — was approved by the trustees. He said local politicians routinely give each other contributions; Reynolds, the sheriff and other county officials have donated to him.

“There’s nothing unusual that political people support other political people that are like-minded, there’s no impropriety here, none,” Welch said. “It was just looking to people who had donated in the past to support me this time, that’s all it was, there’s nothing else to read into anything like that. It wasn’t pay to play or anything.”

Civil lawsuit bleeds into criminal charges

In the sheriff’s report under the heading “ethics violations” it mentions the fact Reynolds allegedly told Parks he would “land lock him so he could not sell his property” after the elderly man refused to sell him 11 acres on the north side of Hamilton Mason Road back in 2015.

The civil lawsuit says Reynolds undervalued the property — offering to buy it for $475,000 — because he knew Parks was cash strapped due his wife’s cancer treatments. When he refused, the civil lawsuit said Reynolds told Parks he would “see to it that any proposed development of the property would never get through planning and zoning.”

The civil suit says “in retribution” for Parks refusing to sell, Reynolds’ office had the agricultural tax break removed from some of Parks’ properties causing his taxes to increase. The sheriff’s report states after interviewing auditor’s office staff “the way Mr. Parks’ (CAUV) status was removed would have been at the order of Roger Reynolds.”

What happens next in the cases?

Reynolds was supposed to be arraigned in Butler County Common Pleas Court last Thursday, but all seven judges recused themselves. The Ohio Supreme Court has appointed a vising judge to handle the proceedings.

The Ohio Supreme Court notified the Journal-News Friday retired Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Daniel T. Hogan was appointed to preside over the case.

Yost’s Press Secretary Steve Irwin said Reynolds won’t be arrested, he will just appear when the visiting judge sets the arraignment.

Reynolds has asked the visiting Judge Dennis Langer in the civil case to pause those proceedings while he fights the criminal case. Parks’ attorney replied on Thursday a stay is unnecessary.

Taxpayers have been footing the legal bill to defend Reynolds in the civil lawsuit but will not be on the hook for his criminal defense. Chief Assistant Prosecutor Dan Ferguson said the county has a $100,000 deductible and anything over that will be picked up by the insurance company.

“Intentional acts, which criminal cases have to be, are not something that we defend,” Ferguson said. “To the extent that there’s a civil suit incurred in the course and scope of his employment as the auditor, the policy covers that.”

Some officials say Reynolds should resign

The auditor is the county’s chief financial officer and is responsible for keeping the books, valuing real estate and a host of other functions.

Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor within the next week or so will appoint a panel of three retired judges to decide whether Reynolds should be suspended pending his criminal trial. If he is suspended he will continue to receive his $108,662 throughout the legal process. If he is found guilty he must repay his salary.

Other than the attorney general, some county elected officials say Reynolds should resign, including Sheriff Richard Jones, who said the investigation is still ongoing.

“I believe Mr. Reynolds should resign immediately, I don’t know how you stay in office with these charges and manage the county’s money, real estate and what he’s accused of, these deals,” Jones said.

Butler County Commissioner Don Dixon told the Journal-News, “when you put yourself before the taxpayers maybe it’s time to get out of office” and “if these charges are true, it’s corruption at it’s worst, and it’s disgusting.”

Commissioner T.C. Rogers said “it’s not good news when a public official is indicted for a crime, but our justice provides for innocence until proven guilty.”

Not the first time corruption rocks the county

Reynolds, 52, got into office in 2008 because former county Auditor Kay Rogers, former Commissioner Mike Fox and others went to federal prison for their part in the Dynus fiber optics scandal. Rogers resigned after pleading guilty to bank and mail fraud, and tax evasion.

Dynus Corp. was contracted by Butler County to operate the county’s fiber-optics system, which was built to help spur economic development. Rogers was at the core of the scandal, falsifying documents that secured loans for Dynus while in the name of the county.

In 2013 Reynolds reported his office “tripped” upon the fact two part-time Board of Elections employees were receiving full-time health and retirement benefits, as was the board policy back then. Those long-time employees were Garry Wayne Hicks and Brent Dixon — the commissioner’s son — and they resigned.

“We still have a few people over at the county that are addicted to corruption,” Reynolds said at the time. “And it’s disgusting.”

The state Bureau of Criminal Investigation found there was no criminal wrongdoing, but the policy was not a good practice.

Prior to the indictment Reynolds said he will not leave office and is running for re-election.

“It’s unfortunate that a local zoning dispute has risen to this level,” Reynolds said. “I look forward to answering the accusations and continuing as auditor. My team and I are doing tremendous work in the office and we’re not going to be distracted by petty politics.”

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