Judge denies request from Butler County auditor to stay civil lawsuit amid corruption case

Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds
Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds(Provided)
Published: Mar. 7, 2022 at 6:56 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 8, 2022 at 8:04 AM EST
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HAMILTON, Ohio (WXIX) - A judge has denied a stay request from Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds to postpone proceedings in a civil case against him that makes many of the same corruption allegations as his criminal indictment.

Monday’s decision means Reynolds will now be required to either testify under oath or he can plead the Fifth Amendment in the civil case as he also fights suspension from his elected position and prepares for an Aug. 15 criminal trial.

Reynolds, the county’s chief financial officer since 2008, faces five corruption-related charges including bribery for allegedly using his elected office for personal gain.

He has pleaded not guilty and remains free on his own recognizance.

Reynolds, 52, of Liberty Township, faces up to seven years in prison if convicted on all charges.

He continues to serve as the county auditor and collect his $108,362 annual salary.

He also is running for re-election and will face fellow Republican West Chester Township Fiscal Officer Bruce Jones in the May primary

FOX19 NOW has requests for comments out to attorneys for all parties. We will update this story once we hear back.

The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit is Gerald Parks, an 88-year-old landowner who accuses Reynolds of using his position as county auditor to increase his property taxes and block the development of Parks’ property.

Parks’ lawyer declined to comment Monday but recently wrote in court records the litigation can only be fair to Parks if the case proceeds to trial without delay:

“Mr. Parks is 88 years old and has been a victim of multiple interferences with contacts that he has been a party to regarding the development of his property. The interference has occurred since 2019 and no further delay is warranted.”

Parks attorney, Chip Goff, has asked the court to take a videotaped deposition of Reynolds on March 22.

The case is scheduled for a jury trial in June 2023.

One of Reynolds’ attorneys argued in a motion requesting the stay that ordering Reynolds to testify violates his constitutional rights because his answers could be used in the parallel criminal investigation, essentially putting Reynolds in a “no-win situation.”

“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.

“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.”

However, a retired visiting judge who is overseeing the case because all the local judges recused themselves, Dennis Langer of Montgomery County, wrote in his decision the denial of the stay would not be “unfair or inequitable” to Reynolds, his company and Liberty Township Trustee Tom Farrell, who also is named.

His decision cites similar cases decided by the Ohio Supreme Court: “a stay is not justified by the concern that Mr. Reynolds’ interest in not incriminating himself might preclude him from testifying in his own defense in the civil case.”

Farrell’s attorney filed a motion on his behalf supporting Reynolds’ request for the stay, but the judge rejected that, too.

“With regard to Mr. Farrel’l’s concern that if Mr. Reynold(s) invokes the Fifth Amendment this may result in a negative inference being imposed upon him, this Court finds this is only a speculative possibility,” Langer’s decision reads.

Farrell has said in a statement previously issued to FOX19 NOW that 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 Attorney General’s Office initiated suspension proceedings on Reynolds last month by sending his indictment and detailed records outlining the allegations against him to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Last week, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor appointed three retired judges to a special commission that had two weeks from that date to issue a preliminary decision on whether to suspend Reynolds.

Reynolds is fighting the suspension and alleges the criminal case against him is the state’s punishment because he is challenging a mandated property value increase.

The Butler County Sheriff’s Office began investigating Reynolds late last summer after FOX19 NOW reported he 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 in West Chester Township.

As part of our stories about Reynolds, FOX19 NOW talked to Reynolds and some of his neighbors including an 88-year-old man who lives next door to Reynolds’ parents.

Gerald Parks owns multiple acres of land that he says he has been trying to develop for years on the Liberty Township side of Hamilton-Mason Road.

A few weeks after we met with Parks, he and his daughter and their family trust all sued Reynolds, a company Reynolds controls that is listed as the owner of land on Hamilton-Mason Road near Maud Hughes Road, and others.

The suit and now the Ohio Attorney General’s Office both accuse Reynolds in court records of corruptly trying to control development on Hamilton-Mason Road.

At the time we did those stories last year, Reynolds denied all wrongdoing.

“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,” Reynolds said in a statement to FOX19 NOW on Sept. 30, when the lawsuit was filed.

The lawsuit accuses Reynolds and Farrell of bribery, tortious interference and ethics law violations.

Parks claims in court records 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.

Neither Farrell nor Rumpke has been charged or was even mentioned in court documents the Ohio Attorney General’s Office filed with the Ohio Supreme Court to justify suspension proceedings against Reynolds.

Their written request to the court included details in the criminal case that mirror ones in the civil lawsuit such as:

  • Two developers allege Reynolds 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. A sheriff’s exhibit released since Reynolds was indicted shows the developers gave investigators their handwritten notes and a phone call recording they say documents their encounters with Reynolds.
  • 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 Sheriff’s Office.

Several years ago, Parks and his wife bought about 15 acres to the west of their home, in the 6700 block of Hamilton Mason Road on the Liberty Township side of the street, close to Maud-Hughes Road

The lawsuit claims Reynolds attempted to take advantage of Mrs. Parks’ wife’s illness by expressing that he was aware of Mr. Parks’ financial condition because of it and he just wanted to help by purchasing the Property.

At the time, Parks wife, Helen, was terminally ill with cancer.

“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,” the lawsuit states.

“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 6784 Hamilton Mason Road would be approved by the local zoning boards.

“After consultation with his daughter in October 2015, 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.

“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.

Helen and Gerald Parks raised their family next door to Roger Reynolds' parents on...
Helen and Gerald Parks raised their family next door to Roger Reynolds' parents on Hamilton-Mason Road. Helen Parks died in that home in October 2015.(Provided by their daughter, Tina Barlow)

Then, the suit continues, “As retribution for refusing to sell the Property to Roger Reynolds, in 2017, Roger 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.”

Applications for CAUV must be filed with the county auditor. For property tax purposes, farmland devoted exclusively to commercial agriculture may be valued according to its current use rather than at its “highest and best” potential use. By permitting values to be set well below true market values, the CAUV normally results in a substantially lower tax bill for working farmers.

Parks’ lawsuit claims Reynolds failed to provide any notice to Parks as to the revocation of his 2017 CAUV tax valuation, how to appeal it - and wouldn’t tell his daughter why it was revoked.

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, his lawyer says.

Parks also had a higher annual property tax rate from that point on, according to the lawsuit.

In a news conference the day Reynolds indictment was announced last month, Sheriff Richard Jones called Parks the “alleged victim in this.”

The sheriff and Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost have both called for Reynolds to resign.

Last week, the sheriff said the investigation remains ongoing and more charges could be coming.

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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