Special prosecutor assigned to Butler County auditor investigation; civil lawsuit filed

The investigation into whether Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds has done anything wrong in trying to get $1 million in public funds for mandated road improvements to facilitate the sale of his father’s property now has a special prosecutor assigned, and a civil lawsuit has been filed against him and others.

Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones announced late last month that Attorney General Dave Yost had assigned investigators with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation to assist with the criminal investigation.

On Sept. 22, county Prosecutor Michael Gmoser requested a special prosecutor. Gmoser does not say in the request who or what is under investigation and declined comment this week. The order granting the request was signed by Butler County Common Pleas Judge Keith Spaeth.

Jones and BCI officials confirmed a special prosecutor has been assigned to the Reynolds investigation.

“Attorney General’s Special Prosecutions section was requested to handle the matter. Senior Assistant Attorney General Brad Tommaro was appointed to the case. The investigation remains active and ongoing,” said BCI spokesman Steve Irwin.

Jones said he has met with the special prosecutor.

“The investigation has picked up. We’ve worked weekends, weekdays. We have interviewed some elected office holders. The investigation is moving in lots of different directions,” Jones said.

The sheriff’s office began investigating Reynolds in August for his alleged involvement in trying to ensure public funds could be used for road improvements to facilitate the sale of his father’s property for a senior living development in West Chester Twp.

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.

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.”

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.

Reynolds and Liberty Twp. Trustee Board President Tom Farrell have also been named in a civil lawsuit that alleges bribery and interference in connection with a West Chester man’s land and business relations. Bernard “Buck” Rumpke, a member of the Butler County Planning and Zoning Commission and a Liberty Twp. Trustee candidate, and the Liberty Twp. Board of Trustees are also named in the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit filed by Gerald Parks, Tina Barlow — Parks’ daughter/power of attorney — and his trust, the Parks and Reynolds families were neighbors for more than 50 years living in West Chester Twp. on Hamilton-Mason Road. Parks purchased 15 acres of land several years ago across from their residence in Liberty Twp.

In October 2015 when Parks was attending to a “very ill wife,” Reynolds approached Parks with an offer to purchase the land. The suit claims Reynolds attempted to take advantage of his wife’s illness and made an offer to purchase the land.

“In October 2015, Roger Reynolds made Mr. Parks an undervalued offer via what was titled an option contract for the purchase price of $475,000 and a down payment of $9,000,” according to court documents “Following this offer, Mr. Reynolds pressured Mr. Parks to make a decision to sell the property to himself by claiming he was in a position to assure any proposed development on (the land) on Hamilton Mason Road would be approved by the local zoning boards.”

After talking with is daughter, Parks “met with Reynolds at a local Frisch’s Restaurant and told Reynolds that he was not interested in selling his property at this time and certainly not for the price Reynolds offered him,” according to the lawsuit.

Parks claims Reynolds gave him an ultimatum: “Sell the property to Roger Reynolds, or be landlocked and Roger Reynolds would see to it that any proposed development of property would never get though planning a zoning,” the lawsuit says.

The suit alleges Reynolds conspired with Farrell and Rumpke to interfere with business deals and development on his land. It claims Reynolds removed a property tax designation meant for land used for commercial agriculture in 2017 and increased the value of Parks’ property.

Park claims he was not given an explanation other than the land had not qualified for a long time. He also states in the suit that Reynolds’ “permitted his father, Raymond Reynolds, to continue to maintain the (tax designation) on property he owned despite not qualifying.”

Reynolds said the property tax designation as well and development on his father’s land has nothing to do with his office. He said his father’s land is still used for agriculture. Raymond Reynolds, 81, still trains horses for barrel racing on the land, and crops and cows are located on another parcel a few blocks away.

Reynolds said he had multiple conversations with Parks to purchase the land. There was no pressuring, and he offered the purchase as an option contact because there were several elements and approvals needed to develop the land, he said.

“I understand why he is upset. His deal didn’t go through and there are some financial difficulties,” Reynolds said Tuesday while sitting outside the horse barn on his father’s land.

Farrell said 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 questionably timed false accusations against me affect a reputation that took a lifetime to build. The township is filing a motion to dismiss, and I am confident that these false allegations will be dismissed and my reputation for honesty and fairness supported.”

Rumpke returned a message from the Journal-News and said, “I have no comment at this time.”

In reference to the investigation into his seeking of public funds for improvements that would facilitate the sale of his father’s land, Reynolds said he was acting as a private citizen.

“The process of my dad’s land sales did not involve my office and I didn’t feel there was any issues with me working with him and the developer through the process,” Reynolds said. “I simply asked three different administrators what the process is and I followed it.”

Reynolds said the developer documents that were forwarded to the county administrator should have gone through his personal email. Some were sent with auditor’s office letterhead. He said many residents have concerns about how developments will impact them

“I have every right to go and speak on behalf of myself and my dad,” he said.