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Sheriff: Investigation of Butler County auditor ‘has picked up and is getting more intensified’

Published: Sep. 15, 2021 at 4:53 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 18, 2021 at 5:51 AM EDT
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BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio (WXIX) - An investigation into whether Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds did anything wrong by seeking $1 million in public funds for road improvements to facilitate the sale of his parents’ property for development “has picked up and is getting more intensified,” Sheriff Richard Jones tells FOX19 NOW.

The sheriff launched the investigation into a potential conflict of interest last month after FOX19 NOW reported Reynolds sent emails asking for meetings with staff at Butler County and Liberty and West Chester townships to discuss getting tax increment financing to improve Hamilton Mason Road.

The road improvements are needed for a $20 million senior living community proposed for land his parents own on the south side of Hamilton Mason Road near Maud Hughes Road - land that is directly across the street from property he recently acquired from his parents, county records show.

Some of Reynolds emails to staff came from his personal email, but several were sent from his county elected office email system to County Administrator Judi Boyko and a manager at the Butler County Engineer’s Office, copies of them show.

Another string of emails reveals he requested a meeting with Boyko about the TIF after responding to her message regarding unrelated county business.

Reynolds also contacted Butler County Water and Sewer Director Martha Shelby, according to an email she sent Boyko. Shelby’s email indicates Reynolds told her the developer for the was concerned about $862,512 in water capacity fees so Reynolds wanted to explore special capacity fees for “developments targeting” older residents.

Sheriff Jones said detectives have interviewed county officials and trustees in both West Chester and Liberty Townships as potential witnesses.

“Detectives as working diligently to get to the truth and the facts. We are interviewing other office holders,” he said Wednesday. “The investigation has picked up and is getting more intensified.”

He declined to elaborate.

The findings will be turned over to the Ohio Ethics Commission and Butler County Prosecutor’s Office to review, according to the sheriff.

Reynolds, the county auditor since 2008, did not respond to multiple requests for comment verbally and in writing over the past week. After we sought comment again on Wednesday, he sent an email stating:

“We are still working on your requests. I expect to have a response to you by early next week. Thank you for your patience.”

When FOX19 NOW first asked him about this on Aug. 27, he dismissed suggestions it could pose a potential conflict of interest, saying: “I am just helping my dad trying to start to downsize his assets as they get older.”

He also said: “I didn’t see anything wrong with it at all. TIFs are used to make road improvements to further some of the development in this area.”

It’s not his property, he stressed, saying he has no financial benefit.

“It’s 100% my dad’s land.”

We also contacted him for comment a few days later, after the sheriff told us the matter was under investigation.

At that time, Reynolds remained firm there was no issue and stressed he was within his rights as a “private citizen.”

“Just like I told you on Friday,” he said on Monday, Aug. 30, “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 has 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,” he said.

Property records show Reynolds’ parents own several parcels of land on Hamilton Mason Road, buying the most recent parcel in February.

They also shared some with their son, according to records at the county recorder’s office.

He told us last month he bought some of his parents’ land to continue his dad’s farm. He sent us a picture of a new fence he said he put up there with the help of his daughters.

Reynolds is listed in state business filings as the agent of Liberty Way Farms Inc., which bought three parcels totaling about 25 acres owned by Hamilton Mason Properties LLC in December, according to county property records. The sale price listed in property records for all three parcels is $150,000.

Hamilton Mason Properties LLC is owned by his parents, according to a quit claim deed filed at the Butler County Recorder’s Office.

Reynolds listed his father, 80, as one of his creditors over $1,000 on his 2020 financial disclosure report, which was filed in May of this year with the Ohio Ethics Commission, a copy of it shows.

His father declined comment Wednesday.

The Ohio Ethics Commission cannot confirm receipt of any complaints, allegations, or referrals concerning potential violations of ethics laws. That information is confidential by state law, according to the commission’s executive director, Paul Nick.

“I can tell you that the Commission typically prioritizes investigations of matters referred to us by law enforcement agencies and prosecutors,” Nick told FOX19 NOW.

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 says:

“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.”

Under Ohio’s conflict of interest statute, “use of authority” could include using your office to try and influence other office holders.

Penalties for violating ethics laws vary.

A finding of “use of authority” is a misdemeanor punishable up to a $1,000 fine and/or up to six months in jail.

The Ohio Ethics Commission has not received any written requests for an advisory opinion from Reynolds in 2020 or 2021, according to Nick.

This is the second investigation launched by the sheriff’s office this summer into an elected official in Butler County and potential conflict of interest.

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 voting to approve a variance for land his son owns.

“People in positions of trust (like public officials, attorneys, doctors, clergy) have an ethical duty to subordinate their personal interests in favor of the interests of those whom they represent,” said Robert Foehl, business law and ethics professor who teaches in Ohio University’s College of Business.

“Personal interests must take a ‘back seat’ to those interests. Moreover, there are laws and regulations regarding conflicts of interest that must be followed in many cases.

“Just because a conflict of interest exists, does not necessarily mean that there is a problem. Often, there are processes that exist in order to try to resolve such conflicts. A critical component of these processes is requiring disclosure of the potential conflict of interest to the individuals or organizations represented by the person in a position of trust,” he said.

“Of course, the requirements of the law are the bare minimum requirements. One’s ethical obligations are often a higher standard than the law. As such, persons in a position of trust should not only try to avoid actual and potential conflicts of interest, they should avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

“An elected official using county electronic mail systems to further improvements to a roadway area in which he and his immediate family owns property which would be positively affected by such improvements raises red flags. Even if there is no actual or potential conflict of interest, the specter of impropriety is raised. In other words, there is an appearance of inappropriate action by a person in a position of trust.”

Some Butler County officials say they are surprised Reynolds is seeking a TIF for the road along his parents’ property and land he now owns directly across the street since he has argued against using TIF funding before in his role as the county auditor who oversees how taxpayer money is spent.

TIFs are a commonly used economic development tool that allow communities to earmark property tax revenue from increases in assessed values within a designated TIF district.

Supporters say assessed property value within TIF districts generally grows much faster than in the rest of the municipality, so they benefit the entire community.

Opponents argue it’s a developer strain on city services without proving much public benefit.

“That’s why I was surprised why he was asking for one now,” County Commissioner T.C. Rogers tells FOX19 NOW. “As an elected official, we are held to a higher standard and even acts that may not be illegal can be deemed to be improper in this type of situation.

“I think Roger does a good job as an auditor, but as a public official it sure isn’t anything that I would do. When you charged with overseeing the funds of the taxpayers, I wouldn’t ask for any taxpayer money for anything that could be even possibly connected with me.”

The latest county emails show Reynolds sent the county administrator an Aug. 11 email reiterating his request, attaching details on how the proposed TIF funding would work.

“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.

“Roger,” she wrote in response on Aug. 12, “Thank you for forwarding your request and for sharing West Chester’s preferred approach to supporting the development for which you’ve requested TIF consideration. I’ve generally shared your proposal with and briefed two of the three Commissioners and have reached out to the third, but not connecting yet. I’ve also reached out to bond counsel to inquire about the lawful application of PILOTs from another TIF. I’ll let you know when I receive direction from the Board and instruction from bond counsel.”

“Roger,” she wrote again on Aug. 27, “Since it has been nearly two weeks since your submission, I wanted to provide a status. Since my reply on August 12th, there has been no update. I provided the Commissioners the attachments the same day you emailed, and I reached out to bond counsel that same day as well.”

He responded: “Hi Judi, Thanks for the follow up. 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. Hopefully the commissioners will follow suit and approve funds from the Hamilton Mason rd (sic) TIF for the suggested improvements. Have a nice weekend! Roger”

Earlier this year, on April 6, Cathy Harris, Tax Collection Specialist with the Butler County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, sent an “Engagement Letter” for processing about a private firm that will perform accounting services for the county to Boyko, Assistant Butler County Prosecutor and Chief of the White Collar Crime Division Dan Ferguson and a paralegal at the prosecutor’s office.

“Hello Judi, Please see the attached Engagement Letter, ready for processing. Thank You, Cathy”

Boyko forwarded it to Reynolds, Butler County Treasurer Nancy Nix, Butler County Finance Director Angelina Burton and two staff members, each from the auditor and treasurer offices.

“Auditor Reynolds and Treasurer Nix, May I humbly ask one of you sign and forward to the next? I’ll sign after the Board approves it at the April 12th meeting. If you prefer to wait, please just let me know.”

Reynolds responded only to Boyko two days later, on April 8: “Hi Judi - I have the engagement letter signed. Are you free this morning or tomorrow? I would like to stop by and drop off the letter and discuss the latest on the TIFs and Ham-Mason road. -RR”

Boyko responded: “Roger, Thank you for hunting down signatures. I would be very happy to meet with you except I am out of the office, visiting my mom in Virginia. I think I mentioned my father passed away in December and I’m checking on her. Can we meet next week? I can have someone run down to Admin building and pick up the letter.”

Reynolds has done more than email county and township staff about the project and meet with staff.

He’s spoken individually with all three trustees in Liberty Township and West Chester Township Trustee Mark Welch, according to county and township emails and interviews with some elected officials.

West Chester trustees approved rezoning for Red Oak in April, township records show.

They have not decided yet on the TIF request, according to a township spokeswoman, Barb Wilson.

Liberty Township’s administrator and Trustee Christine Matacic told Reynolds the township doesn’t have the money to help pay for it or any development on the near horizon to help fund road improvements, township emails show. Both also both expressed concern the developer wasn’t paying for the road improvements.

West Chester Trustee Welch said he called Reynolds on another matter and Reynolds mentioned in passing he had a meeting with the township about the project.

Welch says he never felt pressured and “there is no tit for tat.” He says development in West Chester is passed on its merit, not whose name is behind it.

Liberty Township Trustee Steve Schramm told FOX19 NOW he privately met with Reynolds and wound up feeling “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 told FOX19 NOW on Aug. 30.

“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.”

Reynolds also has attended public meetings when Red Oak’s rezoning was being considered.

He was in the audience but did not speak during the West Chester Township Trustee meeting on April 13 when the trustees approved Red Oak’s rezoning.

Reynolds did speak for several minutes in support of the development on his parents property at the March 15 West Chester Planning Commission meeting, according to a link to the meeting video posted on the township’s website. His father got up after and also spoke, briefly and emotionally.

Reynolds did not say he was the Butler County auditor. He began his comments by saying “I also own property directly across the street from this proposed development.”

During his remarks, Reynolds said “we” multiple times as he explained how Red Oak was selected for development of his parents’ property.

Here are his comments in entirety, according to meeting video:

“I have been sworn in. My name is Roger Reynolds. I live at (he stated his home address in Liberty Township).

“I also own property directly across the street from this development. And as staff mentioned, this is a tough site. And you’re noticing in some of the original photographs that there’s dirt work being -- taking place there. And the reason for that is over the last four plus years or so my dad and I, Raymond Reynolds, we’ve talked about, you know, what can go on this particular piece of property.

“And over time we’ve talked with different developers and having those discussions, and to a person they look at it and they’re like, you know, you’ve got a lot of topography issues there. You’re going to need, you know, you’re going to need something that’s going to go in there and help flatten that out. With the Liberty Center and their big mound of dirt, and their recent sale to Costco, they have a large amount of clay fill structural dirt.

“And so fortunately their timing and our timing was that we went ahead and took a large amount of structural fill that will benefit any development going forward to help smooth out some of that topography. So if you see any development going on, or it’s not really development, it’s actually where my dad worked with Steiner Group to bring down the dirt. So that’s in transition.

“From my standpoint, I really want to know what’s best for the project, best for the property, and right now it’s agriculture. And I believe what’s best would be a medium density. Not a high density, but a medium density.

“And I can tell you from my background and saying, hey, I really want what’s best for the community and my neighbors. I can put my money where my mouth is and actually sat where you guys did, but in Liberty Township back in the late 90′s I took on a role when I bought a home, got into Liberty Township. Didn’t like what things were looking like. I wanted it to be more like West Chester where I grew up, which is roughly about five doors down from what this project is. And I wanted to be a part of what was going on, and see some positive change. So I got on Liberty zoning and I think we really had a positive effect, mirroring a lot of what was going on in West Chester.

“And, you know, my only caution to all of you is, be careful because it might further a bigger political career for one of you guys down the road. So there might be a bid for governor out of one of you guys in your futures. Like I said, I believe agriculture to medium density works in this particular property. It’s -- if anyone drives that area they understand there’s a stretch on Hamilton-Mason Road going down through what we call the mouse hole that there’s some blight there. And there’s been blight there my entire life.

“And it’s a struggle seeing it and trying to figure out what’s the best for our community. And this is a start of making an improvement on that stretch of road on Hamilton-Mason. And over the last several years, West Chester has struggled to have a home there that basically was a meth house. It was an absolute wreck. For four years West Chester tried every way through the courts to get that house cleaned up and they were unsuccessful. Fortunately, as my father was thinking down the road he said, you know what, I’m going to bite the bullet. I’m going to spend a decent amount of money. I’m going to buy that property and clean it up. And that was a positive for the community.

“And that joins with this particular piece of land that he’s trying to sell. And we want something that, like I said, that’s best for the community. And when I say that, as I said, I mean it. I took a trip to Columbus. I went up to the Delaware project and I looked at what these folks as they presented. I wanted to make sure that what they said wasn’t true -- was true, and I took a tour of the buildings. I looked at the vaulted ceilings and the granite countertops in the kitchens and the bathrooms. I looked at the clubhouse and I saw the big fitness center in the common area, and the billiards room and the area out back where folks were prepping land to do some gardens, and I talked to some of the residents.

“And I did my homework to make sure that when I came back home and I talked to Mr. Carmichael, who lives on the street, you know, and I see the Days in the audience, when I come back and say, hey, I think this is a project that’s going to really benefit Hamilton-Mason, it’s going to benefit West Chester and it’s going to benefit Liberty Township. I can look them in the eye and I can be honest with them because I went up, I did my homework.

“We turned down some other folks that wanted to go higher density. They wanted to pay more money. We don’t want high density there. We want something that’s medium density, low impact. And what’s great about this particular space is we already have two examples across the road in Liberty Township.

“We have high density and we have medium density directly across the road. And the medium density is folks that are ideal for this project, 55 and older. It’s very low impact. Traffic very limited. No buses are coming in and out of that project. That’s what we want for, you know, our space and to be our neighbors. We want the medium density. We don’t want the high density. And we want the low impact. And we want something high end.

“And when, like I said, I went up and visited this project and looked around, you know, I left there really excited and was happy to report back to my dad, you know, this is the place that down the road you would be happy to be in, because it’s, I mean, it’s nice. The other part is for our neighbors, they’re not going to tear down -- they’re not going to cut down our trees.

“You saw on one of the maps there’s five, six, seven acres of beautiful woods, huge walnut trees. You know, I grew up playing in them so to see a group come in, have a hearing and say, ‘hey, you know, we’re going to protect that’ and, you know, another generation be able to take advantage of seeing that in their back yards, that’s pretty cool. We’d rather have the farm. My dad is 80. He’s smart enough to know it’s time to start moving the assets along. I appreciate that.

“West Chester is not going to come in and buy all the land and keep it all green, so change happens and development happens. So I would really appreciate if you would consider this, this development and the fact that we got a group that’s ready to spend $20-25 million in a blighted area.

“And last point I’ll mention here is that the sewers do not run along Hamilton-Mason Road. That’s one reason why there’s blight there, because sewer was not extended down Hamilton-Mason so development stopped.

“When you saw that map and you saw office, retail, then all of a sudden stop manor housing, well, why did it stop? Well, because that’s where the sewer stopped. And the only way to get sewers up to Hamilton-Mason now is to run it from the rear of this property.

“So this is the door that opens, development happens, sewer will be brought from rear to front to Hamilton-Mason Road and now that will kickstart some additional development that will start turning over some of the blight and bringing some real positive. And we’ll be able to take those dollars, we’ll be able to improve Hamilton-Mason Road. So that will be a benefit, obviously, to both townships and to the county. So thank you for your time.”

Two zoning commission members recused themselves from participating in the Red Oak hearing, according to the meeting minutes: Doug Rinnert and Jim Hahn. An alternate member of the commission sat in on the meeting for those discussions.

Rinnert, who runs a printing business in West Chester, tells FOX19 NOW he felt it was best to abstain since he’s done business for Reynolds in the past.

When we contacted Hahn, he referred us to West Chester Township’s spokeswoman, who released the following statement:

“Mr. Hahn recused himself from the Red Oak case because he performed some preliminary engineering work on the project. This work was done in his professional capacity of course, not as part of his volunteer position on the Zoning Commission.”

Hahn is owner and president of Infrastructure & Development Engineering, Inc. in West Chester Township.

Hahn was among those copied on June 8 emails from his company’s senior engineer, Timothy Foster, to managers at the county engineer’s office as Foster discussed several scenarios and shared drawings for improvements for Hamilton Mason Road for Red Oak, county records show.

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