Butler County Auditor indicted on new public corruption charge

Butler County Auditor indicted on new public corruption charge
Published: Jul. 13, 2022 at 10:21 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 14, 2022 at 9:50 AM EDT
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HAMILTON, Ohio (WXIX) - The Butler County County auditor, already under indictment on five public corruption charges related to his elected position, was indicted on a sixth one Wednesday.

Roger Reynolds now faces four felonies and two misdemeanors as the investigation - which was launched nearly a year ago after a FOX19 NOW story about Reynolds - continues, according to Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones.

The new felony charge is his third one of unlawful interest in a public contract. It was announced Wednesday when a new, superseding indictment was returned by a grand jury.

Reynolds, 52, of Liberty Township, was indicted in February on five charges now this superseding one includes all six charges.

In all, Butler County’s chief fiscal officer is charged with four felonies: bribery and three counts of unlawful interest in a public contract; and two misdemeanors: unlawful use of authority and conflict of interest, court records show.

The county’s chief financial officer since 2008 faces up to 7.5 years in prison now if convicted on all charges.

The new allegations involve Lakota Local Schools between Jan. 1, 2017, and Dec. 21, 2017, according to the sheriff and the indictment.

Reynolds and a group of people approached Lakota administrators in charge of money in an attempt to “coerce” the district into paying to build something for the Four Bridges Golf Course, the sheriff said in a news conference.

“It basically started with Roger Reynolds and a group of people approaching the Lakota Schools...the administrator, the people in charge of the money, and were basically talking about the money that (the auditor’s office) returned to the schools,” Jones said.

The state gives the auditor’s office money for calculating and distributing real estate taxes from levies to local governments. The auditor’s office doesn’t use all the real estate fee money so Reynolds returns millions to the community each year.

The auditor’s office is giving Lakota $500,367 in refunded fee money this year, and the district was set to receive $459,498 in 2017, according to a news release on auditor’s website.

“He made a recommendation and tried to coerce them into taking the money they were going receive,” the sheriff said Wednesday, “and he tried to encourage them to build something for the Four Bridges golf course. It goes back to involving family members of Roger Reynolds and he’s also a member of Four Bridges Golf Club. He also lives at Four Bridges.

“I told you, in the beginning, this investigation is not finished and it’s not finished today. It’s a very sad day,” the sheriff said.

A Lakota spokeswoman released one document to FOX19 NOW on Wednesday in response to a records request.

There is another record, she said, but the district is withholding the document in its entirety, citing attorney-client privilege.

FOX19 NOW has asked for the record to be released with redactions of what they feel - or their legal counsel advises - is attorney-client privilege. We have not heard back yet.

“I told you, in the beginning, this investigation is not finished and it’s not finished today. It’s a very sad day.

“We are also looking at the possibility of - and we’ve been looking at this - there was a deal with dirt that involved over $600,000 payment that was received by Roger Reynolds and/or family members and we’re looking at that and that was just to take the dirt that he got and he still received over $600,000 payment for this dirt. We also are looking at a combination of tax reduction and millions of dollars and that investigation is ongoing.”

As recently as the Fourth of July weekend, the sheriff’s office and attorney general’s office “were interviewing a key witness,” the sheriff said.

A jury trial was set for Aug. 15 on the original indictment.

The superseding indictment and new charge likely will now delay that.

“It’s sad we’ve come to this point. Hopefully, we’ll get to trial soon,” the sheriff said.

The case is being investigated by the sheriff’s office, Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Ohio Ethics Commission.

It is being prosecuted in Butler County Common Pleas Court by the Special Prosecutions Section of the Attorney General’s Office.

Reynolds has pleaded not guilty to the original charges, remains free on his own recognizance, continues to serve as the county auditor and collects his salary that the county treasurer says will be $108,362 this year.

Reynolds was unopposed in the May primary and received the endorsement of the Butler County Republican Party in April despite the corruption charges.

He will face Democratic challenger Mike Dalesandro in the November election.

His attorney released a statement on his behalf late Wednesday afternoon:

“Like the original indictment, the allegations in the superseding indictment filed today against Mr. Reynolds are false. Mr. Reynolds has never solicited, accepted, or paid any bribes, and he has never used his position, authority, or influence to improperly benefit himself or anyone else,” the statement reads.

“Though the superseding indictment provides no details about the added charge, we are aware of a public statement by Sheriff Jones claiming that the new charge relates to monies returned from the Auditor’s office to the Lakota Local School District. If that is true, the added charge is false and misplaced. Mr. Reynolds is proud that he has operated the Butler County Auditor’s Office with such fiscal responsibility that tax dollars can be returned to many local taxing districts, including the Lakota schools.

“Under Mr. Reynolds’ leadership, the Butler County Auditor’s Office has always followed the statutory requirements when returning unspent tax dollars. We again ask that the community not rush to judgment in this matter, and we look forward to proving Mr. Reynolds’ innocence at the upcoming trial.”

We asked Reynolds attorney to respond to the sheriff’s statements about ongoing investigation, including the payments of more than $600,000 for dirt and a propert tax decrease.

“It is highly unusual for law enforcement officials to make public statements about an ongoing investigation or a pending criminal case, since such statements can often undermine an investigation or improperly influence potential jurors,” wrote the attorney, Chad Ziepfel, in a statement.

“Sheriff Jones would undoubtedly agree that criminal defendants are innocent until proven guilty, and are entitled to a trial by a jury of their peers who are unbiased and not tainted by the public statements of elected law enforcement officials. As to the substance of Sheriff Jones’ remarks, we have no comment.”

A Lakota spokeswoman, Betsy Fuller, said the district was not aware of any impending investigation or new criminal charges related to Mr. Reynolds until the grand jury indictment was released this morning.

“To be clear, Lakota Local Schools did not enter into any type of agreement with Mr. Reynolds,” Fuller wrote in an email to FOX19 NOW. This entire case involving Mr. Reynolds is incredibly unfortunate for the residents and taxpayers of Lakota and Butler County.”

Authorities 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 between Maud Hughes and Cincinnati Dayton roads as he facilitated the sale of his parents’ property into a $20 million senior residential complex.

He emailed and/or met with county and township officials to promote the detailed proposal, according to copies of emails and interviews we did last year.

A company that Reynolds is the agent of, Liberty Way Farms, also owns property along the road in that area, according to county and state records.

A visiting judge overseeing Reynolds’ criminal case recently denied motions filed by his attorneys to dismiss the original charges.

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

Reynolds told FOX19 NOW earlier this year: “I have served Butler County for the past 14 years with dignity and professionalism. I’ve cut costs, advanced conservative policies and fought for taxpayers at every opportunity. I respectfully ask everyone to reserve judgment and allow for due process so I may prove my innocence.”

A special commission of retired judges appointed by the Ohio Supreme Court determined Reynolds should not be suspended from office amid his criminal case after Ohio Attorney General Yost requested following the first indictment.

There is a civil case that also is ongoing right now, filed before Reynolds was charged in February, with some similar corruption allegations.

The lawsuit names Reynolds, his Liberty Way Farms and others. It accuses Reynolds of bribery, tortious interference and ethics law violations.

The lead plaintiff is an 89-year-old landowner Gerald Parks who accuses Reynolds of using his position as county auditor to increase his property taxes and block the development of Parks’ property.

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

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

Reynolds also has denied all wrongdoing in the civil case, telling us when it was filed last year: “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.”

These are the allegations in the civil lawsuit that mirror ones in the criminal case, according to filings from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to the Ohio Supreme Court last year to try to justify suspension proceedings against Reynolds:

  • 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.

The lawyer for Reynolds in his individual capacity and his Liberty Way Farms in that civil case, Brodi Conover of Bricker & Eckler emailed FOX19 NOW Monday after we requested records from a Lakota spokeswoman related to Reynolds and Lakota:

The Lakota spokeswoman provided the following law firm names Wednesday when we requested who provided legal counsel to the district:

  • Frost Brown & Todd
  • Bricker & Eckler
  • Ennis Britton
  • Pepple & Waggoner
  • Graydon Head & Ritchey

“Of these, Bricker & Eckler currently assists us with facilitating public records requests. However, Lakota personnel are the ones who actually pull the records for each request,” Fuller wrote in an email to us.

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