‘Conflict of interest’ leads judge to recuse himself from Bellbrook school board trial

GREENE COUNTY — The trial for Bellbrook-Sugarcreek’s superintendent, as well as current and former school board members, will not start this week after the judge presiding over the case recused himself. This comes after one former board member’s case was dismissed.

Judge R. David Picken moved to recuse himself from the cases for Douglas Cozad, Elizabeth Betz, David Carpenter and Virginia Slouffman due to a conflict of interest, according to court documents filed in Xenia Municipal Court. This marks the second judge to recuse themselves from these cases, according to the Xenia Municipal Court. The trial was set to start on July 14.

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In documents filed online Monday, Picken stated that the conflict of interest was discovered Friday when it was learned that “one of the Plaintiff’s counsel was a former subordinate” of Picken’s when they both worked for the Attorney General’s Office.

The Ohio Supreme Court will now be in charge of appointing a new judge to preside over each case, according to the Xenia Clerk of Courts. New trial dates will be scheduled once a new judge is appointed.

Court documents show that the Special Prosecutor for the City of Xenia filed a motion to dismiss the charges against former board member Kathy Kingston on May 25. The motion stated that Kingston suffered from “an illness that has impaired her memory and communication,” leading her to be unable to “assist in her own defense.” That motion was granted and Kingston’s case was dismissed, according to a court document filed July 8.

All of them were accused of illegal transaction of public funds and dereliction of duty surrounding the way district money was reported to have been spent around the May 2019 school levy, according to court records.

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Cozad faces four counts each of illegal transaction of public funds and dereliction of duty. Carpenter, Slouffman and Betz each face single counts of illegal transaction of public funds and dereliction of duty, online court records show.

The charges were filed in November 2021 by Fraud Investigator John Uhl with the Auditor of State’s Special Investigations Unit.

News Center 7 previously reported in June that Cozad’s attorney filed two motions to have the court dismiss charges against the superintendent.

Arguments delivered in Xenia Municipal Court last month focused on the question whether attorneys for the state auditor’s office, chosen by the city’s law director as special counsel for the school district, have overstepped legal boundaries in the case accusing Cozad of illegally transacting public funds as well as dereliction of duty.

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An attorney for the state auditor’s office argued that the agency followed state law when it investigated Cozad’s use of taxpayer dollars to promote and research school levies.

Cozad’s attorney, James Fleisher, said in court records that the investigator “initiated the prosecution by exceeding his authority to act as a peace officer.” He also argued that the law state auditor’s office attorneys are using to prosecute Cozad are constitutionally vague.

State attorneys countered that the case should proceed because Cozad cannot establish, by clear and convincing evidence, that the law being applied to the prosecution of his case is unconstitutional.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated the conflict of interest was regarding a member of the defendant’s counsel. The conflict of interest is with a one of the Plaintiff’s counsel.

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