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Lawsuit alleging corruption against Butler County officials can proceed, judge says

From left to right: Liberty Township Trustee Tom Farrell, Butler County Auditor Roger Reynold...
From left to right: Liberty Township Trustee Tom Farrell, Butler County Auditor Roger Reynold and Butler County Planning and Zoning Commission Member Buck Rumpke.(Provided)
Published: Jan. 19, 2022 at 11:13 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 20, 2022 at 11:25 AM EST
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BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio (WXIX) - Three Butler County public officials accused of corruption in a lawsuit could face questioning under oath now that a visiting judge determined some portions of the case can proceed.

This comes at a time when one of them, Auditor Roger Reynolds, is under a criminal investigation by the Butler County Sheriff’s Office, Ohio Attorney General’s Office and Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

Only Liberty Township was dismissed from the lawsuit Wednesday due to governmental immunity, wrote retired Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Dennis Langer in his 38-page decision.

Reynolds and Liberty Township Trustee Tom Farrell are accused in court records of alleged bribery, tortious interference and ethics law violations by an 87-year-old West Chester Township landowner.

Gerald Parks claims he’s lost three development contracts due to their “tortious interference with him and his business dealings,” resulting in a loss of at least $1.3 million.

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 records show.

All three men are sued in their personal and professional capacities.

Lawyers for the defendants denied the allegations in court records filed last year and asked the judge to throw out the legal action.

The judge, however, wrote in a ruling this week related to Farrell’s request to dismiss the case: “This court is not persuaded.”

FOX19 NOW reached out to lawyers of all parties for comment.

Reynolds’ lawyer declined to comment.

Rumpke’s lawyer did not respond.

“The Township does not comment on pending litigation,” responded Scott Phillips, the attorney for Liberty Township who also represents Farrell as a trustee and in his personal capacity.

Farrell re-issued a statement he put out last fall after the lawsuit was filed. It reads in part: “Lawsuits are one of the risks of being an elected official, as it is often times 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. 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.”

The Ohio Supreme Court had to step in and appoint the visiting judge last year to oversee the case after all seven judges in Butler County Common Pleas Court recused themselves.

The lawsuit alleges Parks’ civil rights were violated by a series of events that began after he turned down an “undervalued” offer from Reynolds to purchase one of his parcels of land in 2015.

At the time, Parks and his family were coping with his wife’s terminal cancer diagnosis.

Reynolds was raised in a home with his parents and siblings that is 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 his wife’s illness 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.

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 (Parks’ land) on Hamilton Mason Road would be approved by the local zoning boards.

“After consultation with his 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,” the suit states.

“At that meeting, Roger Reynolds gave Mr. Parks an ultimatum: sell the Property to Roger Reynolds, or be land-locked and Roger Reynolds would see to it that any proposed development of the Property would never get through planning and zoning,” the suit reads.

Reynolds then allegedly went on, with Farrell and Rumpke, according to the litigation, conspiring to interfere with Parks’ “business relations and to cause intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

Gerald Parks
Gerald Parks(FOX19 NOW)

Reynolds has been under criminal investigation since August by the Butler County Sheriff’s Office.

BCI and the AG’s office joined in September, and the Ohio Ethics Commission also is involved.

The sheriff’s office began investigating after FOX19 NOW reported 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 as he facilitates the sale of his parents’ property into a $20 million senior residential complex.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost appointed a veteran special prosecutor to oversee the investigation.

In a statement to FOX19 NOW back in September, Yost said: “Fortunately, local law enforcement rarely has to deal with public corruption in Ohio. These cases can become very complicated and often require specialized expertise, which the Attorney General’s Office can bring to the table. We will work closely with Sheriff Jones until this investigation is complete.”

He recently told FOX19 NOW he anticipates the probe will wrap up early this year.

Yost and Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones have repeatedly declined to discuss the details of the case, citing the ongoing investigation.

The probe was already underway when Parks filed his lawsuit in September.

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 the 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 him he needed “more green space.” That developer told Parks’ attorney he “didn’t want to be involved with the project that Roger Reynolds was interfering with.”
  • 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.
An investigation is underway into a potential conflict of interest by Butler County’s longtime...
An investigation is underway into a potential conflict of interest by Butler County’s longtime auditor, Roger Reynolds, Sheriff Richard Jones confirmed on Monday, Aug. 27, 2021.(Provided/file)

Parks’ attorney, Milton “Chip” Goff, has declined to say if he and/or the Parks family reported the allegations in the lawsuit to authorities and if they participated in the investigation.

The sheriff’s office is aware of Parks’ allegations and interviewed “lots of people,” Sheriff Jones told FOX19 NOW last fall.

The executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, Paul Nick, has repeatedly 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.”

And:

“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.”

Reynolds issued a brief statement to us last fall 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.”

Reynolds also told FOX19 NOW last year 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.”

When FOX19 NOW first interviewed Reynolds on Aug. 24 about his parents’ land development deal and seeking public money for road improvements, he responded: “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 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 Monday, 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.

He responded:

“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 the day the lawsuit was filed.

“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 declined to comment to FOX19 NOW on the lawsuit last year.

A sign advertises a Sept 21 zoning hearing for Gerald Parks' property on the north side of...
A sign advertises a Sept 21 zoning hearing for Gerald Parks' property on the north side of Hamilton Mason Road in Liberty Township. The developer pulled out of his contract with Parks the week before the hearing because he anticipated the township would reject the plan after its zoning commission recommended denial, Parks attorney says.(FOX19 NOW)

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