Judge to decide if Butler County auditor’s civil lawsuit will be halted amid corruption case

Mike Allen talks Butler County auditor’s civil lawsuit
Published: Feb. 17, 2022 at 11:25 PM EST
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BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio (WXIX) - A visiting judge will decide whether issue a stay that will halt all court proceedings in a civil lawsuit alleging corruption against Butler County’s auditor in light of his indictment on similar charges.

Roger Reynolds, the county’s fiscal watchdog since 2008, faces five charges for allegedly using his elected position for personal gain.

Three are felonies for bribery and unlawful interest in a public contract, and two are misdemeanors for unlawful use of authority and conflict of interest.

Chad Ziepfel, Reynolds’ criminal attorney, has said Reynolds never accepted or paid any bribes or used his position for improper benefits.

“Not only are the allegations false, but they do not involve the Auditor’s office or Mr. Reynolds’ work as the Auditor. We hope that the community will not rush to judgment in this matter, and will wait for the full story to come out at trial.”

If convicted, Reynolds could face up to seven years in prison and thousands in fines.

Two days after he was indicted, his attorney in the civil lawsuit filed a motion for a “stay” “pending resolution of the recently-filed criminal case against Mr. Reynolds,” court records show.

An 88-year-old landowner who lives next door to Reynolds’ parents, Gerald Parks, sued Reynolds in both his professional and personal capacities last fall.

Reynolds is accused in court documents of using his elected position to block Parks’ land from being developed and to raise his property taxes.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s Office asked the Ohio Supreme Court earlier this week to begin suspension proceedings against Reynolds. Their written request to the court included new details in the case including:

  • Two developers gave investigators their handwritten notes and a phone call recording where Reynolds allegedly requested a $200,000 consulting fee to use his political influence to secure more than $1 million in public money for improvements needed on Hamilton-Mason Road to help facilitate development.
  • The consulting deal included the developers forking over $500,000 a few acres of land Reynolds owns that was valued at $21,000 by his office.
  • The developers stopped trying to develop property in Butler County in August 2021 due to their development being denied on all levels of application in the county and Liberty Township.
  • “They feel this is directly connected to them not paying the consulting fee to Roger Reynolds and do not plan on returning to Butler County because of Roger Reynolds involvement in the development process,” reads an exhibit from the Butler County Sheriffs Office.

The Attorney General’s Office wrote in the court records that Reynolds’ alleged criminal conduct “without question” directly relates to his performance of his duties as the Butler County Auditor, and “adversely affects the functioning of the office and the rights and interests of the public.

“The indictment alleges violations of the very laws that guard against the misuse of public office and authority for personal gain,” the court filing states.

The facts alleged in the indictment “destroy any expectation that Reynolds will exercise independent judgment to benefit the community in acting in any official matters for the (County) and not for the purpose of lining his own pockets.”

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor will appoint a panel of three retired judges to decide.

Meanwhile, Reynolds continues to serve as the county auditor. He was paid $106,498 last year and is expected to collect $108,362 this year, according to the Butler County Treasurer’s Office.

The criminal case stems from the same underlying facts as the civil suit, essentially putting him in a no-win situation, one of Reynolds’ civil lawyers, Andrew Yasowitz, wrote in court records requesting the stay.

“Mr. Reynolds and Liberty Way Farms should not be saddled with the impossible burden of attempting to present their civil defense in a manner that protects Mr. Reynolds’ Fifth Amendment rights,” the motion states.

A memo in support of the motion goes on:

“At present, Mr. Reynolds is faced with a Hobson’s choice to either assert his Fifth Amendment privilege and have a negative inference drawn in the civil case along with additional negative publicity in this highly-publicized case, or provide answers in discovery proceedings and risk those responses being used to attempt to incriminate him in a pending criminal proceeding.”

Not so fast, countered the attorney for the plaintiffs, an 88-year-old landowner, his daughter and their family trust.

Parks’ lawyer, Milton S. Goff III, recently requested to take a video recording of Reynolds’ deposition in the lawsuit on March 22.

Now he is asking the judge to deny the request for the stay and allow the case to proceed despite the ongoing criminal case.

“Mr. Reynolds may now be defending criminal charges based on some of the same conduct the Plaintiffs allege in this civil suit, but the Plaintiffs filed their case more than four months before Mr. Reynolds was indicted. The Plaintiffs were aware of a potential criminal investigation of Mr. Reynolds, but he was the one who was obviously most aware of the status of his criminal investigation.

“The Plaintiffs requested civil discovery in mid-December 2021 a couple of weeks after receiving Mr. Reynolds’ answer to the civil complaint and the Plaintiff’s extended the production of the discovery at the request of Mr. Reynolds’ attorney., It was the Defendant Mr. Reynolds who was most aware of the results of the criminal investigation which is evidence by his request to extend discovery to Feb. 18, 2022; a convenient request and timing.”

What’s more, Parks’ lawyer argued, “Mr. Reynolds through his legal counsel claims they will fight the suspension all the way. Thus why stay this civil case when Mr. Reynolds intends to fight the suspension. Fighting the suspension will require Mr. Reynolds to produce evidence and testify as suspending Mr. Reynolds is a civil action.”

We reached out to both attorneys for comment. Goff declined to talk and we did not hear back from Reynolds’ lawyer.

We also sent copies of both of their motions to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to see if they planned to weigh in on the issue through court filings.

“We do not have comment on the civil proceeding,” responded the agency’s spokesman, Steve Irwin.

All seven judges in Butler County Common Pleas Court recused themselves from overseeing the civil lawsuit and, more recently, again on the criminal case.

The court record with all of the judges’ signatures was filed Tuesday morning, two days before Reynolds’ arraignment on Thursday.

That hearing has now been “vacated,” or canceled, according to the docket.

It’s not clear when Reynolds, 52, of Liberty Township, will make his first court appearance in the corruption case or be formally booked on the charges.

The judges’ order asks the Ohio Supreme Court to appoint a visiting judge for the criminal case, as the state’s top court did last year when the same judges recused themselves in the civil case.

Retired Montgomery County Common Pleas Court Judge Dennis Langer is overseeing the civil case.

Reynolds is up for re-election this year and, so far, his legal troubles have not changed his plans.

He filed petitions last month to run in the May 3 Republican primary and will face West Chester Fiscal Officer Bruce Jones.

The Butler County Sheriff’s Office began investigating Reynolds in late August after FOX19 NOW reported Reynolds 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 near Maud Hughes Road as he facilitated the sale of his parents’ property into a $20 million senior residential complex.

The road improvements are needed before the project, called “Red Oak,” can proceed.

Reynolds’ direct involvement to obtain this public contract broke the law, Yost’s office says.

Reynolds has to pay his own criminal defense but county taxpayers shelled out the $100,000 insurance deductible to defend Reynolds in the civil lawsuit, according to Butler County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Dan Ferguson.

The county’s insurance that funds litigation defense is called County Risk Sharing Authority (CORSA).

CORSA will pick up the rest of the costs of Reynolds’ and Rumpke’s legal defense, but with a “reservation of rights” and “liability exclusions,” according to a copy of their letter to Ferguson, which we obtained through a public record request to him after we received no response to our request last week for it from Reynolds and his top two officials at the auditor’s office.

Those exclusions include:

  • “Any claim caused or contributed to by fraud, dishonesty, or criminal act that covered party(ies) or self-dealing or gaining of profit or advantage to which a covered party(ies) is not legally entitled.
  • “Any claim arising out of the willful violation of any federal, state or local statute, ordinance, rule or regulation committed by or with the knowledge and consent of any covered party(ies)

CORSA, according to the letter, will provide a defense for these allegations as long as there are other covered allegations pending. However, if damages are awarded based upon the excluded allegations, CORSA cannot provide indemnification.”

CORSA also won’t pay for punitive damages under any circumstances.

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