United’s expert in gas plant tax fight escapes sanctions
By TOM GIAMBRONI
LISBON — A split Ohio Board of Tax Appeals declined to take punitive action against a consultant for providing false information while serving as an expert witness on behalf of the United Local school board during a property valuation dispute with the Columbiana County Board of Revision Office.
In a decision issued in July, the Board of Tax Appeals voted 2-1 to deny a motion for sanctions against George E. Sansoucy sought by Utica East Ohio Midstream, whose natural gas collection/processing plant in Kensington was at the center of the dispute.
The school board filed an appeal in 2016 with the Board of Revision (BOR) challenging the county auditor’s $3.3 million taxable valuation of Utica’s plant and 150 acres. At issue was the $25,922 in real estate taxes the school district was receiving at the time.
The appeal was denied, and the school board appealed the BOR decision to the state and hired Sansoucy, a professional engineer and property appraiser from New Hampshire, to assist them. He maintained the taxable valuation should be increased to $40 million.
Construction of the plant complex was finished in 2015, and the dispute occurred at the same time the auditor’s office was completing its countywide reappraisal, with the new taxable values scheduled to take affect in 2017. As a result of the county reappraisal, the Kensington plant’s taxable value was increased to $12.6 million.
United Local continued with its appeal, however, because Utica also filed an appeal. A seven-day hearing was held before the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals in May 2018, with Sansoucy testifying on the school district’s behalf. During the course of the hearing Utica’s attorneys and the county prosecutor’s office began to learn major portions of his testimony were false. This resulted in Utica seeking sanctions to ban Sansoucy from testifying before Board of Tax Appeals for five years.
The prosecutor’s office, which filed a motion in support of sanctions, was most troubled by Sansoucy’s claim under oath to have viewed and studied all 56 piping systems at the plant, either in person or by examining plant drawings, only to learn from Utica there were only 30 such systems.
Board of Tax Appeals members David Harbarger and Jeff Caswell sided with Sansoucy, saying the board “will not sanction merely negligent conduct,” and there was no evidence Sansoucy “intentionally attempted to mislead or deceive this board and its attorney examiners.”
Harbarger and Caswell noted that Sansoucy corrected his testimony after reexaming some of his prior statements and determining they were “incorrect.” They said that alone is not evidence of perjury.
“Such behavior certainly goes to Mr. Sansoucy’s credibility as an expert witness and to the reliability of his ultimate conclusions. However, we do not find they warrant sanctions by the board,” the concluded.
The third board member, Jasmine Clements, disagreed, saying she cannot get past the fact Sansoucy testified for five days that he reviewed documents and viewed systems that never existed.
“Mr. Sansoucy has held himself out to be an expert; however, I find it difficult to believe an expert would not be able to determine which systems were located on the site if he had reviewed documents and inspected the facility as he repeatedly testified,” she said.
Clements notes at the sanctions hearing Sansoucy declined to testify and defend himself against the accusations. “I find his absence telling and unacceptable,” she said.
Sansoucy’s disputed testimony never came into play because before the Board of Tax Appeals ruled, the school board filed a motion to dismiss the case. United Local had reached an agreement with Utica in which the company agreed to abide by new valution of $12.6 million and file no future appeals. The school district now receivs $101,709 a year in property taxes from Utica.
In its settlement agreement there is a provision requiring Utica to set aside $25,000 for the school district to use in paying Utica’s law firm for fees incurred while investigating “any deficiencies” in Sansoucy’s appraisal report. The purpose was to gather information United Local could use to recover what it paid Sansoucy, which is reportedly exceeds $400,000.