Jury hears opening statements in Butler County auditor’s trial

Jury hears opening statements in Butler County auditor’s trial
Published: Dec. 13, 2022 at 6:29 AM EST|Updated: Dec. 13, 2022 at 6:34 AM EST
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BUTLER COUNTY, Ohio (WXIX) - Opening statements began Tuesday in the trial of Butler County’s chief fiscal officer, Auditor Roger Reynolds.

Reynolds, 53, of Liberty Township is facing five public corruption charges for allegedly using his position for personal gain.

  • One count of bribery, a third-degree felony
  • Three counts of unlawful interest in a public contract, a fourth-degree felony
  • One count of unlawful use of authority, a first-degree misdemeanor

A misdemeanor conflict of interest charge was dismissed in court Monday.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones have called for their fellow Republican to resign since he was indicted in February.

Reynolds faces up to seven years in prison if convicted of all charges.

If he is found guilty of any of the felonies, he would no longer be able to hold his public office.

The Butler County Republican Party would be required under state law to choose his replacement between five and 45 days after his seat became vacant.

Reynolds has pleaded not guilty. His attorney has repeatedly called the charges false and politically motivated.

A special commission of retired judges appointed by the Ohio Supreme Court determined earlier this year Reynolds should not be suspended from office amid his criminal case.

He was recently re-elected with the endorsement of the Butler County Republican Party.

Reynolds continues to work and collect his salary which the county treasurer said would be $108,362 this year.

Some of the corruption charges against Reynolds involve property along Hamilton Mason Road owned by his parents’ company.

The Butler County Sheriff’s Office and Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation began investigating Reynolds in 2021 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 in West Chester 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
Sheriff: Investigation underway into auditor’s potential conflict of interest

Yost appointed a veteran prosecutor from his office to handle this case.

Special Prosecutor Brad Tammaro told the jury in his opening statement Reynolds tried to force Gerald Parks, an 88-year-old neighbor of his parents, to sell Reynolds his land so Reynolds could then control development on the road and turn around and sell it to a developer.

Reynolds also tried to intimidate zoning commissions, the prosecution contends.

At the time, Parks’ wife, Helen, was dying of cancer. Parks declined the offer and Reynolds became “aggressive,” according to Tammaro. These are allegations Parks included in a civil suit against Reynolds in the fall of 2021.

“If you don’t sell that property to me, now you’re not going to be able to sell it in the future,” Tammaro told the jury on Tuesday. “It’s going to be landlocked. And if you try to have that rezoned, later on, I’ll stop it.”

After Parks turned the offer down, the auditor’s office took away the agriculture tax break his property had for years. That increased his property taxes and he also owed back taxes.

Reynolds objected to another development deal on Parks property, Tammaro told the jury, and then asked for $500,000 for 2.8 acres of his father’s property and a $200,000 “consulting” fee to support the development and “get it through.”

The developers of that deal backed out after seeing the county auditor wanted $500,000 “or he will fight us at zoning,” Tammaro told jurors.

Reynolds’ attorney, Chad Ziepfel, disputed all of that, arguing that his client’s position as county auditor gives him zero control over the zoning processes. Reynolds did speak at public meetings about what he thought was best for the area, but all residents are permitted to and he did not ask for special treatment, according to his attorney.

“Nobody from the Butler County Planning Commission is going to say that Mr. Reynolds tried to use his position as county auditor to improperly influence their vote,” Ziepfel declared.

“Nobody from the Liberty Township Zoning Commission is going to say that Mr. Reynolds tried to use his position as county auditor to improperly influence their vote.”

Ziepfel said the $200,000 was not a consulting fee, it was for sewer access from his father’s property. He also said that the agricultural tax break was removed from Parks’ property because it no longer met the requirements and leaving it in place would have given Parks special treatment.

Both the prosecution and defense agree Reynolds did propose Lakota school district take its portion of unused real estate tax money that the auditor’s office receives annually from the state and returns to communities and schools to build a golf academy at the private Four Bridges Country Club where Reynolds is a member and whose daughter’s golf team could use to train in the winter months.

Reynolds’ office returned $459,498 to Lakota in 2017, the year Reynolds made the golf academy proposal to the district, according to a news release on the auditor’s website.

“You can’t use public money to build a private building on private property,” Tammaro told the jury.

Reynolds’s attorney said it was just an idea, and Lakota’s attorneys said tax dollars could not be used that way.

“And that’s it the idea just died,” Ziepfel explained to the jury. “Nobody made any threats. Nobody said, ‘If you don’t do this, I’m not going to give you that refund in the future.’”

The trial is expected to last about two weeks.

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