Prior to this criminal case, the state auditor’s investigations into school-levy cases typically resulted in administrative “findings for recovery” against a particular school district, Fleisher said. He argued that attorneys for the auditor of state have no authority to prosecute the case, citing Ohio law that such cases must be referred to the county prosecutor to institute criminal proceedings.
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 is accused of authorizing school levy newsletters promoting a May 2019 school levy paid for with district funds. An affidavit from Auditor of State fraud investigator John Uhl says in one example, the district used $5,214 in public money to send messages saying “Continue the excellence with the passage of Issue 4.”
After the levy was defeated, Cozad is accused of approving the expenditure of $37,000 in public funds to hire Allerton Hill Consulting and $15,000 for a telephone survey conducted by Fallon Research and Communication Inc. The consultant was hired to assist the district in public communication and messaging “for the purpose of reviving and passing another proposed operating levy,” according to court documents.
The criminal charges against Cozad and four current and former school board members are unconstitutional, Fleisher argued, because Ohio law has long forced school administrators to operate in a gray area.
Other school districts, including Centerville, Northridge, Beavercreek, and Kettering have used similar language in levy-related communications, such as “Maintain Excellence,” and “make an investment in our school district, your children, and the community we love,” according to the motions.
Fleisher’s filing cites a joint white paper by the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, the Ohio School Boards Association, and the Ohio Association of School Business Officials, saying “Ohio law is silent on what it means to ‘support or oppose’ or to ‘influence’ a levy or bond issue. As a result, there is no objective standard by which such conduct is measured, leaving public officials and employees to be judged on a subjective basis.”
Fleisher argues that the state’s prosecution of Cozad is selective and arbitrary, due “at least in part, by the extensive influence and political pressure John Stafford attempts to wield over the local community.” Stafford filed at least 12 criminal complaints with state and local authorities, according to court records, and has a “personal vendetta” against the superintendent, Fleisher said.
In addition to dismissing the criminal charges, Fleisher requested an evidentiary hearing to investigate these claims.
Current Bellbrook school board president David Carpenter, board member Virginia Slouffman and past board members Liz Betz and Kathy Kingston are also implicated, having been charged with one count each of illegal transaction of public funds and dereliction of duty.
All five are scheduled to be tried together before a jury, at 8:30 a.m. July 14 in Xenia Municipal Court.