Butler County public officials rebut corruption allegations in landowner’s lawsuit
BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio (WXIX) - Three Butler County public officials including the auditor are all rebutting corruption allegations leveled at them in a lawsuit from an 87-year-old landowner, court records show.
The Ohio Supreme Court recently appointed a visiting judge, retired Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Dennis Langer, to oversee the case.
The state’s top court had to get involved because all seven judges in Butler County Common Pleas Court recused themselves. Judges are not required to explain why.
The case has a telephone conference set for Jan 7 at 1:30 p.m., court records show.
A criminal investigation by local and state officials has been underway for months related to one of the public officials named in the suit, Auditor Roger Reynolds. The Ohio Ethics Commission also is involved.
Reynolds was investigated for his alleged involvement in trying to secure $1 million in public funds for mandated road improvement to facilitate the sale of his parents’ property for development in West Chester Township.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost recently told FOX19 NOW he anticipates that probe wrapping up early next year.
That investigation was already underway when the lawsuit was filed in late September.
Yost appointed a veteran special prosecutor, Brad Tommaro, to oversee the investigation underway by the Ohio 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. The 122-unit project received zoning approval in West Chester, but road improvement was one of the conditions of Red Oak proceeding.
Reynolds’s Liberty Way Farms Inc. also bought about 25 acres on the road in December from Hamilton Mason Properties LLC, according to county property records. That land is not part of Red Oak.
Hamilton Mason Properties LLC is owned by his parents, according to a quitclaim deed filed at the Butler County Recorder’s Office.
Reynolds listed his father, 81, 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.
In late September, Reynolds and Liberty Township Trustee Tom Farrell were accused in a lawsuit of alleged bribery, tortious interference and ethics law violations related to Gerald Parks of West Chester Township and his land development contracts.
Parks claimed in his suit 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 he declined 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.
A member of Butler County’s planning and zoning commission, Bernard “Buck” Rumpke, is accused in Parks lawsuit of an alleged ethics law violation as well as tortious interference, court documents state.
Reynolds, Farrell and Rumpke are all 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.
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.
Liberty Township’s law director filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on behalf of Farrell and the Liberty Township Board of Trustees, calling the allegations a “cheap political stunt timed specifically to disparage Trustee Farrell.”
“This Complaint is a thinly veiled attempt to impugn Trustee Farrell’s character and to undermine the integrity of the 2021 election,” the court records state.
“Trustees will not stand for such baseless attacks on their integrity.”
Parks’ attorney filed a response in court records dismissing that stance as “disingenuous.”
Parks “has no interest in politics and is not asserting anything political. He only asserts facts that have occurred over the past years. The Defendants’ comments are nothing more than a conspiracy theory and show how little they understand how Mr. Parks has been harmed.”
Here are the denials from Reynolds, Liberty Way Farms, Farrell and Rumpke. All were recently filed in the Butler County court record:
Parks’ lawyer declined to comment for this story.
So did the attorney for Farrell and Liberty Township: “It is the policy of Liberty Township to not comment on pending litigation.”
A Columbus attorney is representing both Reynolds and Rumpke in the case, according to the latest filings.
He did not respond to a request for comment.
Neither did a Lebanon attorney who is representing Reynolds in his personal capacity.
Reynolds issued a brief statement to us recently 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.”
Earlier this year, Reynolds told FOX19 NOW when we asked him about the investigation: “My assistance with my parents’ land sale did not involve the auditor’s office or any official action as county auditor. I will fully cooperate and I look forward to resolving this issue.”
He also has said: “I am just helping my dad trying to start downsizing his assets as they get older.”
He said he thought the senior living community would be a great addition to the community. He said the property is not his and he had no financial benefit: “It’s 100% my dad’s land.”
He has said he didn’t see anything wrong with seeking the public money for the road improvements, even when we pointed out he used his elected office email account in emails to county officials at times, in addition to a personal email account.
“Just like I told you on Friday, “Reynolds told us back on Aug. 27, “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 at that time 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.”
The Ohio Ethics Commission confirmed back in September they never received a request from Reynolds for an advisory opinion.
Farrell initially laughed when FOX19 NOW told him Sept. 30 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.”
Farrell issued a lengthier statement to FOX19 NOW the following day:
“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.”
Rumpke has declined to comment to FOX19 NOW on the lawsuit.
Parks’ attorney, Chip Goff, has declined to say if he and/or the Parks family reported the allegations in the lawsuit to authorities and if they were participating in the investigation.
The sheriff’s office is aware of Parks’ allegations and interviewed “lots of people,” Sheriff Jones has said, declining comment due to the open investigation.
The executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, Paul Nick, has declined to comment as a matter of policy, not as a confirmation or denial whether they are investigating.
Generally, under the conflict of interest statute, the use of authority could include using your office to try and influence other officeholders, Ohio law shows.
There are various penalties for violating ethics laws.
Use of authority penalty is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and/or six months in jail.
The Ohio Ethics Commission website also states:
“Remember, public servants may NOT take any action in matters that definitely and directly affect themselves, their family members, or their business associates.”
“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.”
See a spelling or grammar error in our story? Please include the title when you click here to report it.
Copyright 2021 WXIX. All rights reserved.