Lakota emails: Attorney advised against auditor’s proposed $750K country club ‘partnership’ for golf academy

‘We don’t believe this idea works under Ohio law’
Butler County Auditor indicted on new public corruption charge
Published: Jul. 19, 2022 at 8:08 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 19, 2022 at 7:36 PM EDT
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LIBERTY TOWNSHIP, Ohio (WXIX) - Lakota emails and other records show their attorney advised against a request from Butler County Auditor Roger Reynolds, as relayed by the district’s treasurer, to use $750,000 his office planned to return to the public school district for a “partnership” with the private Four Bridges Country Club and Golf Course to help build a golf academy there.

Reynolds lives at the Four Bridges subdivision in Liberty Township and is a member of the golf course, Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones said during a news conference last week.

In 2017, 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, according to the sheriff.

The Lakota emails and some text messages between Reynolds and Lakota’s longtime treasurer, Jenni Logan, provide new details into the latest public corruption-related charge against the county’s top financial officer since 2008.

The new felony, announced last week, is his sixth charge overall and the third count of unlawful interest in a public contract in what remains an open investigation into whether he used his public office for personal gain.

Reynolds, 52, pleaded not guilty when he was first indicted earlier this year on bribery and the other four other charges. He is scheduled to be arraigned on Aug. 3 on this latest charge in a superseding indictment.

Reynolds and his criminal defense lawyer have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. His attorney said last week the latest allegations were 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,” his attorney’s 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.”

On Monday, his attorney declined to comment for this story, writing in an email response to FOX19 NOW “as this appears to be the subject of count 6 in the superseding indictment, it would be inappropriate for us to make any statements about the facts at issue.”

If convicted now on all six charges, Reynolds could be sentenced to up to 7.5 years in prison.

Authorities began investigating Reynolds in August 2021 after FOX19 reported Reynolds was seeking more than $1 million in public money to pay for road improvements on Hamilton Mason Road as he facilitated the sale of his parents’ property for development there.

The state of Ohio 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.

The sheriff said last week Reynolds “made a recommendation and tried to coerce them into taking the money they were going receive 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.”

A Lakota spokeswoman, Betsy Fuller, has said the school district did not enter into any type of agreement with the county auditor.

“This entire case involving Mr. Reynolds is incredibly unfortunate for the residents and taxpayers of Lakota and Butler County.”

Lakota emails show Reynolds brought up a meeting with the district’s treasurer that would include the director of golf instruction at Four Bridges, Gene Powell, more than five years ago.

FOX19 NOW obtained the documents via public records request to the district.

The December 2016 email mentions the meeting as a secondary topic in an exchange with Logan where he confirmed the county’s bond rating would remain unchanged at 4%, a copy of it shows.

The meeting would involve at least Logan, Reynolds, and Gene Powell. He is the director of golf development at Four Bridges Country Club, according to the club’s website.

“Mike ran the numbers and we are comfortable leaving the bond rate at 4%. Did you have a chance to talk to Chris and Rich? Gene Powell is anxious to talk with them.,” Reynolds’s Dec. 15, 2016 email states.

Logan responded: “That’s awesome news! I have spoken to both Chris and Rich and we are looking at calendars and going to schedule something the first part of January (after Christmas break) to discuss with Gene. If you speak to him, please let him know that we will be reaching out. Thanks, Roger. I look forward to our continued discussion on both topics.”

After the meeting, Logan checked with an attorney for the district to see if the proposal was legal.

The lawyer, Matthew Strout with Bricker & Eckler of Columbus, asked her to send the details to him in writing, according to her email:

“Our County Auditor, Roger Reynolds, approached me with an idea,” Logan’s Feb. 2017 email to Strout states. “He would like to take one-half of the fee money he is expecting to return to us (approximately $250,000) each year for the next 3 years ($750,000 total) and use it towards a partnership with Four Bridge Country Club who is planning to build a new golf academy. I’ve attached a press release from the past that gives further details on this “refund,’” Logan wrote.

‘He indicated he has never suggested how we use this fee money but he would now like to. We met with the golf pro of the Four Bridges Country Club and Mr. Reynolds to discuss the details of this facility and how something like this could even come about. I did explain we could not use our money to build a facility on their land.

“The conversation then went into maybe this could be considered an “access fee”. I told Mr. Reynolds we would first find out legally if something like this could be done and how, and then we would discuss should it be done. I need you to look at all angles and provide guidance. Thank you!”

Lakota’s attorney responded:

“Jenni, I have taken a look at this proposal and consulted with a few other lawyers at the firm. A couple of thoughts:

  • “If the County returns the money to the School District, we can find no statutory authority for the School District to use the money (or any other money of the School District) to fund a private golf academy at a private country club.”
  • “If the County keeps the money instead of the refund, it seems that it is a question for the County Prosecutor as to whether or not the County would be authorized to use County funds to fund a private golf academy.”

“In addition, he continued writing, “using either School District or County funds to fund a private golf academy may be found to be in violation of Article 8, Section VI of the Ohio Constitution which prohibits the lending of aid and credit by a political subdivision to a private entity. Based on this, we don’t believe this idea works under Ohio law. Give me a call if you want to discuss further.”

She replied with a question: “Does this opinion cover the concept of giving them the money for ‘access?’”

Lakota’s attorney responded:

“This opinion would not apply to an access fee if it is an ‘access’ fee in the true sense of the word. I assume that school districts enter into agreements to use facilities for sports such as golf and other activities on a regular basis.

“However, I am pretty certain the access fees are not in the range of $250,000 annually. In this case, I think the ‘access’ fee would be viewed as a way to funnel the money to fund a private golf academy and circumvent the law. Let me know if you want to discuss further.”

According to records released to FOX19 NOW, Lakota’s treasurer sent Reynolds a text message the afternoon of Feb. 14 letting him know the district’s legal counsel “agree legally we could enter into an agreement for access, they advise against it because in their view it could be viewed as a way to funnel the money to circumvent the law. My next step is to communicate the legal opinion to the Board. Do you have an opinion from the prosecutor that would give a different stance?”

Reynolds responded, according to records released by Lakota to FOX19 NOW: “Can we have a meeting with legal to clarify before going to the board?”

Logan replied: “I can set up a phone call pretty easily, I think. Send me your availability this week and next and I will set something up.”

Reynolds texted back, according to records released to FOX19 NOW by Lakota: “I’m free Thur or Friday. Anything next week. I don’t understand the funnel part. In the meantime, I will talk to the prosecutor. Thx.”

It’s not clear if Reynolds, Logan and/or anyone else with the auditor’s office or at Lakota checked with Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser’s office.

Lakota’s spokeswoman referred us to the prosecutor’s office. We reached out to the prosecutor’s office Friday and again Monday. We also requested copies of any related legal opinions to the district and/or Reynolds.

On Tuesday, Dan Ferguson, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney who is chief of the civil division, denied our public records request: “The content or even the existence of legal opinions or legal communications between our office and our clients, constitute attorney-client privilege information.”

We checked with another longtime county auditor to get his take.

Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes said he didn’t want to judge another auditor but he did confirm he’s never made suggestions or requests to taxing districts such as a school district about how to spend funds his office returns.

“I’ve never done that. That’s not my duty, not at all,” he told us Monday. “It’s not the auditor’s role to tell people what to do.”

The case against Reynolds is being investigated by the Butler County 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.

There also is an ongoing civil case, filed last year 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 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 fall: “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.”

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.

Reynolds 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.

Logan, meanwhile, announced at the March 28 school board meeting she will retire on Aug. 1.

“Lakota has been my home for the past 11 plus years,” she told the school board, according to the district’s website. “This decision has been one I have personally struggled with, but have now reached a sense of peace and know it is the right thing and right time for me and my family.”

Under Logan’s leadership, the district has achieved 10 straight years of balanced budgets and eight Auditor of State Awards with Distinction from the Ohio Auditor of State.

Both of these achievements are rare for a school district, its website states.

correction: The headline on this story has been updated to the accurate monetary amount.

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