All 7 Butler County judges recuse themselves from lawsuit accusing elected officials of alleged bribery
BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio (WXIX) - All seven judges in Butler County Common Pleas Court are recusing themselves from handling a lawsuit that accuses the county auditor, a Liberty Township trustee and a member of the county’s planning and zoning board of corruption-related allegations.
One of the elected officials, Auditor Roger Reynolds, is under criminal investigation right now by local and state authorities, according to the Butler County Sheriff’s Office.
Judges are not required to state why they recuse themselves from a case or cases.
“They have all indicated they have recused themselves,” said Terri Ballinger, judicial assistant to Judge Daniel Haughey, who originally was assigned the case but immediately passed.
Now, the Ohio Supreme Court will assign a visiting judge, she said. It’s not clear when the judges would all sign the recusal paperwork so that process can begin. It could take “weeks,” she said.
Auditor Roger Reynolds and Liberty Township Trustee Tom Farrell are accused in court records of alleged bribery, tortious interference and ethics law violations related to an 87-year-old man and his land development contracts.
Gerald Parks claims he’s lost contracts to sell his property due to their “tortious interference with him and his business dealings,” resulting in a loss of at least $1.3 million after turning down an “undervalued” offer from Reynolds to buy some of his land in 2015.
Parks owns land on both sides of Hamilton Mason Road in West Chester and Liberty townships.
Reynolds also is accused of alleged extortion, the suit states, and a member of the county’s planning and zoning commission, Bernard “Buck” Rumpke, is accused of an alleged ethics law violation as well as tortious interference, court documents state.
Reynolds, Farrell and Rumpke are named in both their professional and personal capacities. The suit additionally names Liberty Township Board of Trustees and Liberty Way Farms Inc. Reynolds is listed in state business filings as the agent of Liberty Way Farms.
Reynolds was raised in a home with his parents and siblings next door to the Parks family on the West Chester side of Hamilton-Mason Road, according to the lawsuit.
Hamilton Mason Road is located in West Chester on the south side of the street and is in Liberty Township to the north.
The lawsuit claims Reynolds attempted to take advantage of Parks’ wife’s illness (she had terminal cancer at the time) by expressing that he was aware of Parks’ financial condition because of it and “he just wanted to help by purchasing the Property.
“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,” court documents state.
The lawsuit alleges Reynolds told Parks to sell his property to Reynolds or “be land-locked and Roger Reynolds would see to is that any proposed development of the Property would never get through planning and zoning.”
Court documents go on to allege Reynolds promised public money - tax increment financing - to pay for improvements to Hamilton Mason Road, a requirement for that development. So the developer, who had told Parks’ attorney he wanted to buy some of his land for the senior living development - a contract value that could have been as much as $1.5 million - instead bought Reynolds’ parents’ land.
Other allegations in the suit, according to court records:
- Reynolds “demanded” $500,000 from one of Parks’ developers to purchase two acres of Reynolds’ father’s land. The developer considered buying the additional acreage to add to Parks’ property for senior housing development.
- Reynolds “incorrectly” told one developer he needed more green space. He also said he would use his clout to fight the proposed development if they didn’t buy his dad’s land.
- The developer met later that same day with Farrell who allegedly told the developer he needed “more green space,” the same comment Reynolds made earlier that same day. That developer then told Parks’ attorney he “didn’t want to be involved with the project that Roger Reynolds was interfering with” and terminated the contract they entered into with Parks.
- Reynolds sought a $200,000 consulting fee from one of the developers for Parks’ land to get the project through the zoning process.
- “As retribution for refusing to sell his property” to Reynolds, in 2017, “Reynolds, in his position as the Butler County Auditor, revoked Parks’ CAUV (Current Agricultural Use Value) property tax designation and increased the taxable value of Mr. Parks property.” A $30,000 charge was levied against Parks on his first tax bill of 2018, the amount of tax savings that he had accumulated for the three previous years with the CAUV designation. Parks also had a higher annual property tax rate from that point on.
A veteran special prosecutor, Brad Tommaro, recently was appointed by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, to oversee an investigation involving Reynolds underway by Yost’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Butler County Sheriff’s Office.
The sheriff’s office launched the investigation in August after FOX19 NOW reported Reynolds, the county auditor since April 2008, was seeking - at times using his county elected office email account - more than $1 million in public money for road improvements on Hamilton Mason Road, county emails show.
His parents own land along the road. Reynolds told FOX19 NOW on Aug. 27 he is helping his dad downsize his assets as his parents get older. His parents’ land is the site of a proposed $20 million senior living complex along Hamilton-Mason Road, Red Oak.
Reynolds’s Liberty Way Farms Inc. bought about 25 acres on the road in December from Hamilton Mason Properties LLC, according to county property records.
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 latest financial disclosure report, which was filed in May of this year with the Ohio Ethics Commission, a copy of it shows.
Reynolds issued a brief statement to us last week when we contacted him about the lawsuit.
“It appears Mr. Parks wants to add us to a long list of frivolous lawsuits he has filed over the years that includes suit against his own family. He’s making allegations that are absurd.”
When we followed up to see if Reynolds would elaborate or agree to a sit-down interview, he responded: “That’s all that’s needed.”
We have continued to seek comment from him and will update this story if we hear back.
Farrell initially laughed when FOX19 NOW told him last week he was named in a lawsuit and informed him of the allegations.
“I have no idea what he is referring to. The only time I remember Mr. Parks is a case a couple of months ago, it was with retirement homes,” Farrell said last week. “It did not meet Liberty’s standards. It was turned down by both Liberty Township’s zoning commission and the trustees, unanimously. Those are the only dealings with him I can remember.”
On Wednesday, Farrell issued a lengthier statement to FOX19 NOW.
The accusations against him come as he runs for re-election after serving as a trustee the past eight years. Before serving as trustee, Farrell was a member of the township’s zoning commission for a decade.
“The Township has requested that we do not comment on pending litigation, and I will honor that request after this brief statement.
“Lawsuits are one of the risks of being an elected official, as it is often times the last resort for those who fails 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. 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.”
We have reached out to Rumpke, who also is running for trustee in Liberty Township, for comment multiple times, to no avail.
On Wednesday, he responded: “Not now” followed by “no.”
Liberty Township’s administrator said it’s township policy not to comment on pending litigation. The township’s law director also said he doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Parks’ attorney, Chip Goff, won’t say if he and/or the Parks family reported the allegations in the lawsuit to authorities and if they were participating in the investigation.
FOX19 NOW has repeatedly reached out to developers who worked with Parks but has not heard back.
“There is significant evidence to present to a Butler County jury regarding the defendants’ civil liability. We look forward to presenting the facts and supporting evidence to a jury,” Goff said.
Sheriff Jones has said “The sheriff’s office is aware of his allegations and we have interviewed lots of people. I am not going to make any further comments at this time due to the ongoing investigation.”
A spokesman for BCI also has indicated they won’t comment due to the open status of the probe.
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