Sheriff: Investigation underway into auditor’s potential conflict of interest
BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio (WXIX) - An investigation is underway into a potential conflict of interest by Butler County’s longtime auditor, Sheriff Richard Jones confirmed Monday.
The investigation into Roger Reynolds began over the weekend and detectives interviewed several witnesses, the sheriff said.
Investigators will turn their findings over to the Butler County Prosecutor’s Office and Ohio Ethics Commission, he said.
Sheriff Jones declined all further comment, including which elected officials were interviewed.
The sheriff’s investigation comes after FOX19 NOW reported last week that Reynolds, Butler County’s auditor since 2008, is pushing county, Liberty and West Chester leaders for more than $1 million in subsidized road improvements on Hamilton Mason Road.
The work that would benefit his parents property, the site of a proposed $20 million development on Hamilton-Mason Road, county and township records show.
A spokeswoman at the Ohio Ethics Commission said they have not issued or received a request for an advisory opinion or guidance from the Butler County Auditor.
She said she would not be able to confirm or deny allegations or investigations because that information must be kept confidential by law.
The Ohio Ethics Commission website states:
“Remember, public servants may NOT take any action in matters that definitely and directly affect themselves, their family members, or their business associates.”
It also states:
“When someone in public service is confronted with a conflict of interest, he or she must completely abstain from making decisions about or influencing how the matter is resolved.”
This is the second investigation launched by the sheriff’s office this summer into an elected official in Butler County. In a separate case, a trustee in Madison Township who also is a member of the county’s board of rural zoning appeals has come under scrutiny after approving a variance for land his son owns.
In the case involving the county auditor, Reynolds tells FOX19 NOW: “I am just helping my dad trying to start to downsize his assets as they get older.”
Reynolds said Friday his dad bought a farm off Hamilton Mason Road in the 1960s and more properties over the years - his parents mostly recently purchasing a lot just under an acre on Hamilton Mason Road for $225,000 in February, county appraisal records show.
A Columbus developer plans to transform two parcels in Reynolds’ parents’ real estate portfolio into “Red Oak,” a senior living community, according to West Chester township records.
The complex will sit on 25.5 acres along the south side Hamilton Mason Road in West Chester Township.
There will be ranch-style townhomes with attached garages, a pool and clubhouse, a community all in one.
“I think it would be great for the area. I am looking forward to seeing it move forward,” Reynolds said on Friday.
Reynolds told FO19 NOW Friday he saw no issue with seeking the TIF funding and being involved in the project.
Reynolds dismissed concerns his direct involvement might be perceived as inappropriate or a conflict of interest.
“I didn’t see anything wrong with it at all,” he said. “TIFs are used to make road improvements to further some of the development in this area.”
It’s not his property, he said, he has no financial benefit.
“It’s 100% my dad’s land.”
On Monday, Reynolds remained firm there was no issue and he stressed he was within his rights as a “private citizen.”
“Just like I told you on Friday, it was nothing that took place within my office related to this project and because of that, as of private citizen I am allowed to make requests of other offices. So nothing was wrong with what I did.”
We asked Reynolds if he sought an advisory opinion with the Ohio Ethics Commission or Butler County Prosecutor’s Office.
“As long as I didn’t do anything within my own office there isn’t an issue with me working as a private citizen and making requests of other offices. That’s what I did. Non-story.”
Reynolds said he now owns 21.6 acres on Hamilton-Mason Road, along railroad tracks near Maud Hughes Road, further down from the proposed Red Oak project. He told us Friday he bought it from his family last year to continue his dad’s farm.
Online county property and state business filing records show Liberty Way Farms Inc is the official owner of the land Reynolds said he bought.
Liberty Way Farms purchased the property from Hamilton Mason Property LLC in December 2020.
Roger Reynolds is the agent of Liberty Way Farms and his mother, Kathy Reynolds, is the agent of Hamilton Mason Property.
Both his parents, Raymond and Kathleen Reynolds, owned the property until 2019, county records show.
They signed a quit claim deed and transferred ownership for $1 to Hamilton Mason Property one year prior, in December 2019, according to records at the Butler County Recorder’s Office.
Reynolds began emailing the county engineer’s office about his family’s property more than two years ago. The first email he sent the Butler County Engineer’s Office regarding that is dated Oct. 26, 2018, county records show.
The email, subject “Hamilton Mason Road access,” went to Eric Pottenger, Storm Water/ Development Services Manager for the engineer’s office and the Storm Water District.
“Hi Eric, My family has property on Hamilton mason along the RR tracks (underpass) near Maud Hughes intersection. I would like to stop in and speak to someone about road access for development purposes. Are you the right person to talk with on this issue? If so, when is a good time for me to stop by? Thank you, Roger Reynolds.”
“What type of development are you considering?” Pottenger responded, agreeing to meet and offering dates and times.
“Discussions continue to progress related to development on Hamilton Mason Rd. The developer and I would like to meet with you to discuss access point, road widening needs, easements, etc. Are you free next Monday or Tuesday for us to stop in your office to discuss?”
Meetings were held, and an array of emails were exchanged, discussing the proposed road improvements, some of which Reynolds was not included on, county records show.
Some of the emails Reynolds sent responding to staff at the engineer’s office includes his official title as county auditor with the public office contact information, including address, phone number and email.
Pottenger has some 87 emails regarding the Reynolds property, according to a spokeswoman for the engineer’s office.
County Engineer Greg Wilkens told FOX19 NOW Monday he had no involvement with Reynolds at all related to this and his office did not pay for the January 2021 traffic study for the senior living community or other documents that may have been generated.
Emails FOX19 NOW obtained Monday show Reynolds directly emailed administrators in both West Chester and Liberty townships in recent weeks and requested meetings.
Reynolds also emailed County Administrator Judi Boyko earlier this month about the TIF request.
“Hi, Judi. As a follow up to our discussion yesterday, I’m including multiple attachments to aid in the discussion on the TIF funding request. Thank you, Roger.”
His email signature reads: “Roger Reynolds, CPA” followed by “Butler County Auditor” and the address to his county office on High Street, county email address and the numbers to his office and cell phones.
“The Board of Commissioners is aware of the request from Auditor Reynolds for tax increment financing for a project on Hamilton Mason Road in West Chester and has provided no direction on position or any intention,” Boyko responded when we asked for an update on the status of his request
According to emails released to FOX19 NOW Monday, his messages to both West Chester Administrator Larry Burks and Liberty Township Administrator Kristin Bitonte did not make reference to his elected office or include his office contact information.
He only left his cell phone and personal email on those.
His email to West Chester Township Administrator Larry Burks was sent July 29.
West Chester’s spokeswoman says so far the TIF proposal for Red Oak has all only been a matter of discussion in West Chester and there has been no formal commitment.
The TIF expense would ultimately require the approval of the township trustees, she said.
One trustee, Mark Welch, has said said what he’s seen of the financial figures for them so far looks good.
Projects are approved in West Chester on their merit only, not who is backing them, he stressed:
“There is no tit for tat.”
West Chester Township released an email showing Burks requested a meeting be scheduled for “Hamilton Mason Road improvements” after Reynolds contacted him.
Tim Franck, the township’s director of community services and Ken Keim, director of finance, also attended the meeting, along with Burks, Reynolds and the developer, township records show.
The developer is seeking about $450,000 from the TIF in West Chester, but will also require about the same from Liberty Township and less from Butler County as partners, a copy of the proposal from Reynolds to the county and Liberty Township shows.
Liberty Township officials, however, aren’t interested at this point due to lack of funding and development, according to their emails and interviews we did with two trustees Monday.
The township administrator raised concerns during her meeting with Reynolds and shared that with the board, her email to them shows:
- The township does not have a revenue stream to help pay for this improvement or any development on the near horizon to help fund the project ·
- The “developer is not contributing to the project "
- “Asked if the developer would be amicable to paying for the improvements upfront, with a repayment over a period of time as determined Roger did share that the developer would be open to paying for the improvements upfront, but would request payment within a year.”
Trustee Christine Matacic wrote in an email response to the township administrator she spoke with Reynolds previously and “pretty much told him what you outlined below – primarily that we do not have the funds for this project and do not see a source of revenue for it at this time (not sure he heard this as he did most of the salesmanship type talking) and asked why the developer was not responsible for the improvements.”
Trustees Tom Farrell and Steve Schramm both told FOX19 NOW Monday they didn’t respond to the township administrator’s email about her meeting with Reynolds.
Both said they raised the same concerns about financing and development during separate one-on-one conversations with Reynolds.
Farrell said when Reynolds first contacted him about the TIF, he referred Reynolds to the township administrator to pitch his proposal and go from there, just like any other citizen would.
Schramm privately met with Reynolds and said he began to feel “uncomfortable” because Reynolds persisting, calling him a total of three times in addition their private meeting.
“I never felt there was any undue pressure that was being applied,” Schramm said. “I just think he was frustrated because he was trying to make something happen and he wasn’t seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I really understand the frustration. I just do not have pots of gold to make it happen.”
Both Farrell and Schramm confirmed Monday they were questioned separately by sheriff’s officials at their homes over the weekend as witnesses only.
Citing the ongoing investigation, they declined to go into detail.
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