NEW DETAILS: Judge recuses himself in Bellbrook school board case, charges against former board member dropped

The trial against Bellbrook-Sugarcreek superintendent and school board members has been delayed.

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The trial against Bellbrook-Sugarcreek superintendent and school board members has been delayed.

XENIA — The trial against current and former Bellbrook-Sugarcreek school board members and superintendent in Xenia Municipal Court will be delayed after the judge recused himself, and charges against one former school board member have been dismissed.

Judge R. David Picken recused himself from the trial, originally scheduled to begin July 14, after the court found that a lawyer for the State of Ohio, which is prosecuting the case, was a former subordinate of Picken when they both worked for the Attorney General’s office. The notice of recusal was filed with Xenia Municipal Court on Monday.

Additionally, the court dropped charges against former Bellbrook School board member Kathy Kingston, after the state declined to prosecute the case due to her poor health. Kingston, 80, was charged with one count of of illegal transaction of public funds and one count of dereliction of duty, the same charges against former board member Liz Betz, and current members David Carpenter and Virginia Slouffman.

Superintendent Doug Cozad faces eight misdemeanor charges, including four counts of illegal transaction of public funds and four counts of dereliction of duty, per Xenia Municipal Court records.

The Ohio Supreme Court will have to appoint a new judge to preside over these cases, and new trial dates will be scheduled once the judge is appointed, according to the Xenia Clerk of Court.

All charges filed are connected with a state auditor’s citation on alleged misuse of public school district funds during a May 2019 Bellbrook school tax levy campaign. Ohio law prohibits “political subdivisions” such as school districts and cities, from using taxpayer money in any way that “supports or opposes … the passage of a levy or bond issue.”

Newsletters paid for by school districts have long walked a thin line between sharing positive school information with voters, which is allowed, and openly campaigning for passage of a tax levy, which is not. Separate political action committees that do not use taxpayer money, often with names like, “Friends of Bellbrook Schools,” are allowed to run “vote yes” or “vote no” campaigns.

Cozad’s lawyer, Jim Fleisher, filed two motions to dismiss the case against him on June 7 on constitutional grounds, saying and the Auditor of the State did not have the authority to bring the charges against Cozad.

Samuel Kirk, the state auditor’s special prosecutor, then asked the court to reject Fleisher’s motion to dismiss, saying Cozad failed to provide “clear and convincing evidence” when his lawyer filed two motions to dismiss the case.

In response, Fleisher said the Auditor of State “provides no historical support for this unprecedented prosecution.” He said the state made a “misguided effort” to list Cozad as a member of the school district’s governing body, and called the prosecution “the very embodiment of arbitrary enforcement” due to vague language and lack of precedent.

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