“The presumption of innocence is now the presumption of guilt. The burden of proof is a travesty because the proof is often lies. Guilt beyond a reasonable doubt means if he probably did it, then let’s get him off the streets.” –Author John Grisham, Rogue Lawyer.
The Times-Gazette recently published an editorial calling on the office of state Auditor Dave Yost to either file charges against Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings by the June meeting of the grand jury coming up Tuesday, or announce that it is dropping the investigation against him.
(As a reminder, when The Times-Gazette presents an opinion as an “Our View” editorial, it speaks for the newspaper, not just for a single individual. Editorials represent the joint opinion of our newsroom, with the exception that when we do editorials endorsing candidates at election time we also bring in staff from outside the newsroom. Our individual columns such as this one speak for the individual writer, not for the newspaper as a whole.)
Think for a minute about the concept of the presumption of innocence. When someone is accused of a crime, presuming innocence is not merely the same as withholding judgment. It is not just keeping an open mind. It is the presumption that the allegations are wrong, and that the person who is being accused is actually innocent of the charges. That is what we are all supposed to do, even after charges are filed and until the moment that a judge or jury produces a verdict of guilty.
On the Opinion Page I have defended Drew’s right to be presumed innocent even in the face of various warrants and affidavits alleging wrongdoing. I have also written many columns critical of him on various subjects. On our news pages I am proud of our reporting on the investigation of the mayor because we have remained true to our mission to be fair, balanced and comprehensive.
This is disputed only by those who believe we should devote ourselves to nothing but allegations and insults against him, as some do. There are many among Drew’s devoted critics who, if they were the ones on the receiving end of criminal allegations and investigations, would wish for more mercy and grace and less presumption of guilt than they allow Drew Hastings.
Even though state investigators and the special prosecutor are proceding at their leisure, there was one important announcement a couple of months ago when the state auditor’s office provided The Times-Gazette with the only concrete information they have been forthcoming about – that there was no special audit in Hillsboro.
According to the state auditor’s website, “When fraud or misuse of public funds is suspected, the Auditor of State’s office conducts special audits or special investigations.” The state auditor’s office confirmed for me again on Friday that there is no special audit in Hillsboro.
This is important because there were initially rumblings and pot-stirring about all sorts of improprieties in the city business, especially connected to the formerly anonymous $78,000 contribution to the city. Was there a quid pro quo? Some sort of underhanded motivation? No, there obviously was not.
It is quite the luxury to suggest that the Hastings investigation should take forever if necessary if you are not the one being investigated. The fact is, Drew’s supporters are not the only ones hoping for a conclusion sooner than later. Even many who do not consider themselves in the mayor’s corner are privately asking for a resolution to it all.
Everyone involved, directly or indirectly, wants it wrapped up so they and the city can move on with their lives and with the people’s business. As for Drew, he’s anxious to know exactly what he’s facing so he can begin defending himself. But until specific charges are filed, he and his attorney can do nothing but wait.
By all accounts, the investigation concluded a few weeks ago. The evidence is now in the hands of the special prosecutor from the state auditor’s office, Robert F. Smith. After initially having reason to hope a decision would be made this month, there is now widespread belief among those in a position to know that Mr. Smith is not going to be ready to proceed with the case (or, more unlikely, announce it is being dropped) in time for the June meeting of the Highland County grand jury on Tuesday.
Believe it or not as the weather grows hot, this all began before last Christmas, and since then we have had a civil case filed and dismissed, countless warrants, searches, confiscations of city computer data and cell phones, comparisons of water usage, confiscations of private computers, late night raids with a visiting father-in-law ordered to get out and go forth into a cold February night, documentation of bras, underwear and child’s toys, and a city frozen in its tracks in regard to moving forward with its projects.
I’m not declaring anyone innocent or guilty. What I am saying – and I make no apologies for it – is that this thing has dragged out far too long, with no sense of urgency to bring a resolution to it for the sake of such a huge sphere of people who are impacted by it, including our entire city.
As Drew’s attorney, Jim Boulger, said, the case “does not seem on its face to be all that complicated.” But, he added, state agencies tend to take their time compared to local ones. That we already know. December. January. February. March. April. May. Now June. And now, it seems, something might happen in July. If we’re lucky.
And so, the mayor and his top administrative assistant, Debbie Sansone, must continue to live and work under a cloud of suspicion. Their families must endure more weeks of whispers and innuendo. The stress in city offices and departments continues to build. Council members continue to put the brakes on initiatives in order to wait and see how it all turns out. The residents of Hillsboro and beyond watch and wait and wonder.
In the meantime, I presume Drew is innocent, and I presume Debbie is innocent, because that’s what I’m supposed to do, and that’s what you are supposed to do. That’s the principle under which our society supposedly operates, and the standard we would all want applied to ourselves. So do your best, even as the months drag by.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.