Butler County auditor refused to let fire crews put out ‘illegal’ blaze, issued written warning

Published: May. 19, 2022 at 5:03 PM EDT|Updated: May. 19, 2022 at 5:16 PM EDT
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LIBERTY TOWNSHIP, Ohio (WXIX) - Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds, who is under criminal indictment in a corruption case that accuses him of using his elected position for personal gain, refused to let fire crews put out what has now been determined an “illegal” and “large” outdoor fire on property owned by his company, according to records obtained by FOX19 NOW.

His Liberty Way Farms was issued a warning letter from a regional air quality agency that determined the incident violated state law, according to a copy of the letter.

Liberty Township fire crews responded blaze on the northeast corner of Hamilton Mason and Maud Hughes roads about 9:17 p.m. Friday, Butler County radio traffic shows.

A township spokeswoman said an anonymous caller reported it.

Fire Chief Ethan Klussman contacted the county’s 911 center and said a battalion chief was the one who got the call. The chief reached out to dispatch and requested a supervisor with the Butler County Sheriff’s Office join firefighters to help at the scene, according to a recording of the call.

“Yeah, we need a sergeant to go out there. So what’s happening is the person that’s doing the open burn, uh, he’s a pretty prominent person in the community and he’s refusing to let us put it out. So we need to have a discussion with him,” the chief told a dispatcher.

An email about the fire from Liberty Township Fire Battalion Chief Jason Knollman to Ciara Wagner, an environmental compliance specialist with the Southwest Ohio Air Quality Agency, reads: “The property owner on site refused to extinguish the fire, he also refused to obtain the necessary burn permit. Advised he would not obtain an EPA permit and was very uncooperative.”

FOX19 NOW requested comments from Reynolds and his attorneys multiple times for this story but did not hear back.

There was some initial confusion during the fire response between the dispatcher and chief over which jurisdiction the property is located: Liberty or West Chester townships, according to the recorded calls.

Hamilton-Mason Road is in Liberty on the north side of the street and West Chester on the south side.

The dispatcher told the fire chief the property was located in West Chester.

“Is it really?” He responded. “Well, then, heck, I should let them handle this whole darn thing.”

“Were you originally dispatched?” she asked

“So, we got the phone call.... we got dispatched because my battalion got the phone call,” the chief answered. “But let me call him back real quick. If this is on the West Chester side, then I’m going to walk away from this.”

She told him it’s two houses on West Chester side of the street. The chief repeated again he would contact the battalion chief to check and see where he’s at and get back to her.

It was determined the fire is located in Liberty Township.

Fire crews ultimately decided the “large open burn with people on scene watching it” was a “pile (that) was burning clean and extinguishing it would have caused more of a nuisance than allowing it to burn out, a copy of their fire report shows.

“Battalion 110 created incident for open burn at above address. Tower 113 requested. Batt 110 arrived on scene to find a large open burn with people on scene watching it. Tower 113 staged on roadway. Pile was burning clean and extinguishing it would have caused more of a nuisance than allowing it to burn out. Person attending the fire advised to not put anymore fuel on it and to allow the fuel load to burn out.”

A township spokeswoman, Caroline McKinney, clarified the “fuel” was wood, not a liquid accelerant when FOX19 NOW sought more details about the “fluid.”

No injuries were reported, all fire crews cleared the scene less than 30 minutes after they arrived and the sergeant wound up never responding, according to dispatch logs.

Fire officials disregarded the call for a sergeant after a resolution was obtained at the property.

“The resolution being that the property owner mutually agreed to let the fire burn out and not add any more fuel (ie, wood – not actual gasoline),” McKinney said.

The fire, however, is classified in the township’s fire report as an “unauthorized burn” and Liberty Way Farms Inc., the property’s owner according to county records, received a written warning from the Southwest Ohio Air Quality Agency that the illegal burn violated state law.

The environmental agency monitors air quality, permits and enforcement for Butler, Hamilton, Warren, Clermont and Clinton counties. The warning letter was sent after their environmental compliance specialist consulted with Liberty Township’s fire chief, township emails show.

“This appeared to be a clearing waste (fire) since no crops or livestock are on the premises,” the chief wrote Wagner on Tuesday afternoon. “I believe, due to the response of the person on site, that a warning letter would be the better course of action.”

“It’s classified as an unauthorized burn because no permit was pulled through the Ohio EPA (the entity responsible for issuing open burn permits),” a township spokeswoman explained in an email Wednesday to FOX19 NOW.

The Southwest Ohio Air Quality Agency addressed their letter to Liberty Way Farms to Reynolds’ Liberty Township home nearby:

“The Fire Department indicated that land clearing wastes were burned in violation of Ohio Administrative Code Rule 3745-19-04(A). The open burning of land clearing waste requires written permission from SWOAQA. Any land clearing wastes burned under 3745-19-04(A) must be at least 1,000 feet from any neighboring inhabited structure(s), and pile size is limited to 10 feet in diameter and 10 feet high. The burn site is located within an unrestricted area.

“Rule Citation Ohio Revised Code (ORC) 3704.05(G): No person shall violate any order, rule, or determination of the director issued, adopted, or made under this chapter. Ohio Administrative Code (OAC) Rule 3745-19-04(A): No person or property owner shall cause or allow open burning in an unrestricted area except as provided in paragraphs (B) to (D) of this rule or in section 3704.11 of the Revised Code.

“Based on these findings, there is sufficient evidence to determine that illegal open burning did occur in violation of both Ohio Administrative Code Rule 3745-19-04(A) and Ohio Revised Code (ORC) 3704.05. Open burning of land clearing wastes was conducted without a permit. A copy of the OAC rules pertaining to open burning have been enclosed for your review.

“SWOAQA requests that you promptly undertake the necessary measures to maintain compliance with Ohio’s environmental laws and regulations. If you plan to continue to burn at this location, a permit is required. A permit application is attached.

“A completed application (including a signature of approval from the Fire Department) can be returned to me via the email address below. Due to the fact that the fire has been extinguished, you are no longer in violation and the property is considered to have returned to compliance. Please note that this does not preclude the Director from seeking relief pursuant to Ohio Revised Code section ORC Section 3704.06.”

Emails from Liberty Township Fire Department to Southwest Ohio Air Quality Agency:

Text messages the township released to FOX19 NOW between Administrator Kristen Bitonte and Trustee Todd Minniear. She says her responses are either in blue or green.

Text messages the township released to FOX19 NOW between Administrator Kristen Bitonte and Trustee Steve Schramm and Trustee Tom Farrell. She says her responses are either in blue or green.

FOX19 NOW had to make multiple requests for information about the incident to the Liberty Township Fire Department, starting on Monday morning and we are still checking on some information that was not included in the fire report or in records released to us.

No fire officials returned our calls and provided information about the run.

We were directed to the township’s website to submit a request for the fire report.

McKinney, the township’s economic development director, sent us an email stating she was the best point of contact as the township’s public information officer.

We repeated our request to speak to fire officials, including the chief, and received this emailed response from McKinney:

“Township protocol is for Public Information Officer to handle media relations inquiries for routine runs like this.”

However, a township email released Friday to FOX19 NOW via public records request shows the township administrator, Kristen Bitonte, wrote to the three township trustees on Tuesday afternoon: “Based on advice from legal we are not making any phone/in person comments.”

The township spokeswoman also relayed us, in writing, that it’s “common practice for a shift commander to be in contact with the fire chief throughout their shift....He monitors all Fire and EMS calls throughout the Township 24/7.”

Fire crews received the alarm about the fire at 9:16 p.m. and arrived five minutes later, at 9:21 p.m.

The last fire unit cleared the scene less than 30 minutes later, at 9:47 p.m.

The report does not say how big the fire is and where it occurred on the property, which is more than 20 acres.

The township spokeswoman told us when we asked: “Fire burned an approximately 20ft x 30ft area.”

The fire also was 5 feet high and trees and brush were being burned, according to township emails released Friday to FOX19 NOW as part of our records request to try to get information about this fire because the fire report has such minimal details.

The size of the fire and what was being burned are the second and third questions that the environmental specialist for the Southwest Ohio Air Quality Agency asked the battalion chief when he emailed her at 12:55 p.m. Tuesday to alert her to “Open Burn Complaint.”

The fire report also doesn’t state the chief had to get involved and requested law enforcement respond to the fire to assist fire crews because, as he told a dispatcher: “...the person that’s doing the open burn, uh, he’s a pretty prominent person in the community and he’s refusing to let us put it out. So we need to have a discussion with him.”

When we asked the township spokeswoman why the repot had such little information, she wrote back: “The fire report reflects the actions our crews took. The fire posed no emergency threat and the location is inconsequential for the report.”

We asked the township if Reynolds contacted the fire department to give them advance notice of the fire.

The spokeswoman responded: “Roger Reynolds called Fire HQ at approximately 6 p.m. to notify LTFD he was planning an open burn on his Hamilton-Mason property. He was advised of the Twp open burn regulations (https://www.liberty-township.com/357/Open-Burning-Permitted).”

When we asked if there were emails or notes regarding this discussion or other documentation of it, the township spokeswoman said: “No notes or emails exist.”

We were also told:

“The (Liberty Township Fire Department’s) role is to assess the fire hazard only.”

“Our crew did not individually count people on site – there were multiple present.”

“The quality assurance review is a cursory review – no other documentation is generated.”

“No other notes or records were taken related to this run.”

“Being on scene for 26 minutes for a non-emergency call like this is standard.”

Reynolds, Butler County’s chief financial officer since 2008, was indicted in February on bribery and four other corruption-related charges: Unlawful interest in a public contract, unlawful use of authority and conflict of interest.

The land where the fire occurred is included in a civil lawsuit against Reynolds and others. Among many allegations at issue in the suit: Whether the land qualifies for the agricultural designation currently on the property that reduces the property taxes.

The suit will be decided in a jury trial in June 2023.

Reynolds’ trial in the criminal case is scheduled for later this summer on Aug. 15.

He has denied all wrongdoing in both the civil and criminal cases, pleaded not guilty in the criminal case, remains free on his own recognizance and continues to serve as the county auditor with an $108,362 annual salary.

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

His attorney maintains in court records the “contrived” case “reeks of a desperate, political ploy” and is Reynolds’ “reward” for fighting Ohio’s “illegal attempts to increase” property taxes.

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.

Conflict of interest? Butler County Auditor ‘just helping my dad’ pushes $1M TIF

The Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation joined the investigation by mid-September, and Attorney General Dave Yost appointed a special prosecutor to oversee the probe.

At the end of September, one of the Reynolds’ longtime neighbors, 89-year-old Gerald Parks, his daughter and their family trust filed a civil suit against Reynolds and others.

The suit accuses Reynolds of using his position as county auditor to increase his property taxes and block the development of Parks’ property after Parks turned down what he says was an under-market-value offer for his land from Reynolds.

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