A Highland County jury on Wednesday found Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings not guilty of two remaining felony charges he was facing, after two other charges were dismissed earlier in the day by the special judge who presided over the case.
A jury of 10 women and two men unanimously acquitted Hastings after deliberating for about two hours. When the verdicts were read, Hastings sat quietly at the defense table with his attorney, James Boulger, while the mayor’s wife, Taryn, who was seated behind her husband in the gallery, burst into tears. If he had been convicted of even one felony count, he would have been immediately forced to step down as mayor.
After special Judge Patricia Ann Cosgrove dismissed the jury and the trial ended, Hastings hugged his wife and some friends who had gathered in the courtroom, showing visible relief at the culmination of a series of events that began 11 months ago with an investigation that led to four felony indictments in July.
Hastings said later that waiting for the verdict was “very scary.”
“You feel you know how it should go, but that doesn’t mean it will,” he said. “It was almost anticlimactic, a small moment compared to what has been a stressful year for me and my family that ended in a two-minute reading of the verdict.”
Hastings thanked his wife “for her strength and for standing by me.” He thanked jurors “for taking a case that maybe they wouldn’t want to be involved in the visibility of. It was a learning experience for the jury, and I know it was for me.”
He thanked his attorney, “who really did a good job with a difficult case, because he had to sort the political agendas from the actual facts of the case. At the end of the day you can’t convince a jury on the witch hunt. Witch hunts don’t leave a lot of fingerprints.”
Hastings added, “I’m still serious about opening an uptown coffee house called ‘Insufficient Grounds.’”
Before the case went to the jury, the judge granted a defense motion to dismiss two of the four felony counts against the mayor.
Boulger had asked the judge to dismiss one of two theft counts against Hastings in regard to the alleged improper use of a city dumpster, as well as to dismiss a charge of tampering with records in connection to a $500 vacant property refund he received.
Special prosecutor Robert F. Smith argued that the charges should remain, but the judge ruled that no evidence had been presented showing that Hastings created or ordered the creation of the document authorizing the $500 refund, and also ruled that no deception had been proven in the alleged use of the city dumpster.
The remaining two charges for the jury to consider were in connection with Hastings’ residency when he filed his candidacy declaration in 2015, as well as a second theft charge in connection with the dumpster use.
After about two hours of deliberation, word came around 4 p.m. that the jury had reached its verdicts. Clerk of Courts Ike Hodson read the verdict forms, and Hastings dropped his head slightly in relief as his wife cried.
After speaking with jurors, prosecutor Smith said he was “not shocked” by the verdicts.
“I knew it was a harder case,” he said, adding that he believed the residency issue – which formed the basis of a felony charge of election falsification – had never been tried before.
Smith said jurors apparently felt that the residency statute contained too many “vagaries” to return a guilty verdict.
Smith said jurors felt that without signage or barriers at the Railroad Street city yard where the dumpster exists, no one telling Hastings he couldn’t dump there, along with the fact it has an unlocked open gate during the day, it was difficult to return a guilty verdict.
Even though he knew the case would be difficult, Smith said he wanted to try a case that would combine various issues that had arisen and “solve them all at once,” if possible. He said he wished Hastings well.
Boulger complimented Smith on doing “a fine job presenting the evidence,” saying his legal adversary in the case was “easy to work with.” He also commended the judge, who worked with the two attorneys on coming to agreements on jury instructions and various stipulations. From the bench, the judge also commended the attorneys for their conduct during the trial.
Boulger said he was impressed by the jury’s “analysis,” and said their verdict reflected their adherence to the instructions from the judge on both charges.
Hastings took the stand in his own defense Wednesday morning, questioned first by Boulger, then by Smith. The mayor testified about various homes he has listed as his residence on different documents, from tax returns to school registrations for his stepdaughter, describing how he had remodeled a Beech Street property as a residence in the city.
But he acknowledged spending considerable time on his farm outside of town. “I love my farm,” he said, describing cattle he kept there, and using it as a place to get away and relax.
Boulger presented a real estate listing showing that Hastings had put the farm up for sale in 2014 and then removed it later from the market. Hastings said he decided to keep it in part because it has become part of his standup comedy routine.
“Part of the premise for my comedy is I’m an unlikely farmer,” said Hastings.
Smith presented comparisons of water usage between the farm and the Hillsboro residence in the form of bills that often showed considerably higher water usage on the farm than the residence in town. Hastings said much of the water usage at the farm was for cattle, and said he was often on the road doing performances.
At one point, when Hastings discussed bush-hogging at the farm, the judge, who is from Summit County, interrupted and said, “I have to ask, what’s a bush hog?”
As jurors and others in the courtroom smiled, Hastings explained it means using a large field mower.
Under questioning by Smith, Hastings described a typical day at his Hillsboro residence. Smith asked Hastings to draw a diagram of the home, which Hastings refers to as “the loft.” He said it was about 1,000 square feet, and was originally designed for one person to live in prior to his 2014 marriage. Hastings answered questions about where his and his family’s clothes and other items were kept.
Hastings acknowledged taking construction debris to the city dumpster “maybe a half dozen times,” with others doing so a few additional times. On Tuesday, a private contractor, Sean Mahorney, had testified that he took debris to the city dumpster “three or four times” for Hastings.
Asked about a call that was recorded by law enforcement in which Hastings encouraged the contractor to avoid talking to investigators and to “play dumb about the whole thing,” Hastings said, “I was freaked out.”
The mayor said, “Over the last few years, a number of efforts to defame me or whatever” have happened, and then “they’re actively going to try to get me on some kind of criminal charge. I freaked out.”
Hastings said he often saw city workers at the Railroad Street yard when he took debris there, including Todd Wilkin, the safety and service director, “at least once.” He said there was “never any discussion” with anyone warning him about dumping at the site.
The day’s testimony began with the state concluding its case with witnesses including Debbie Craycraft, director of the local election board, state auditor’s office investigator Kenny Howard, and Jonathan Robbins, a computer forensic specialist from the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Sheriff’s office investigators Chris Bowen and Randy Sanders and city Auditor Gary Lewis were not called to testify during the trial, although they were on the witness list.
Craycraft answered questions about procedures for filing and challenging voter registration and candidacy forms.
Howard described search warrants he had carried out and bills showing an increase in city dumpster fees in 2014 and 2015, as well as a comparison of water usage at Hastings’ properties.
Describing a nighttime search warrant where the mayor’s father-in-law was ordered out of the house, Howard said, “We figured the best time to find a family of three at home would be late in the evening.”
Boulger quizzed Howard and Robbins about the document authorizing the $500 vacant property refund, with the defense attorney raising questions about dates discovered on the letter’s computer properties that differed from the date on the letter, with Robbins explaining scenarios under which that could occur.
Howard testified that he was unable to find within his notes an interview with the safety and service director, in which Wilkin said he had warned Hastings about using the dumpster, as Wilkin testified Tuesday.
In his closing argument, Smith told jurors that the use of the dumpster was illegal and constituted theft. He said Hastings “basically told Mahorney to lie,” because he knew what he had done was wrong.
“That’s theft,” said Smith. “When you are gaining a personal benefit at taxpayer expense, that’s theft.”
Smith said that Hastings lived on his farm, not in town, evidenced by what he called the mayor’s vagueness about dates he had lived at his other residences, along with bills showing little water usage in some cases at his city address.
In his closing, Boulger told jurors to “pay very close attention to the judge’s instructions” on the residency question.
“What really determines it is your intention to return indefinitely,” said Boulger. “That underlies the notion of falsification.”
Boulger said Hastings was not challenging the fact he had dumped debris in the city dumpster.
“He never tried to hide it,” said Boulger, who drew a diagram using figures supplied by the prosecution to demonstrate that Hastings would have had to dump 25 tons of debris into the dumpster to be responsible for the rise in costs claimed by the prosecution.
Council president Lee Koogler said late Wednesday, “The jury heard the evidence and made their decision, and the mayor was exonerated. The city has to find a way to move forward, and the mayor and council have to work together for the citizens.”
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.