Hastings civil, criminal cases share origins

About three weeks ago, a civil case against Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings, brought by five Hillsboro residents, was filed in Highland County Probate Court. Just two hours later, a search warrant was signed authorizing a search of the city administration building in regard to a criminal investigation of the same issue contained in the civil case.

Since then, the combination of those events has raised a number of questions. Why was a civil complaint filed when a criminal investigation on the same issue was in progress? Did the criminal probe begin because of what law enforcement learned from the allegations contained in the civil case? Or did someone involved with the criminal probe share information with the citizens who used it as the basis for their civil complaint?

The answer appears to be that the citizens who filed the civil complaint were encouraged to do so by the “law enforcement community,” with the goal of trying to remove Hastings from office because of concerns that the mayor might retaliate against those involved in, or cooperating with, the criminal investigation.

Several officials who were interviewed for this story said they cannot recall a similar circumstance where evidence from a criminal investigation was provided to private citizens to initiate a civil case, at least not until after the criminal case was concluded.

But other sources said that city employees had real fears that Hastings might retaliate against police or other city personnel. Several individuals contacted for this story agreed to discuss the case only on the condition that they not be named.

If the goal was to force Hastings from office as soon as possible, the civil case provided the best avenue. Ohio law prescribes a tight schedule of about three weeks from beginning to end to conduct a malfeasance civil case against a municipal officer such as the mayor. If the mayor was found guilty, the penalty would be immediate removal from office.

By contrast, a criminal investigation and subsequent judicial proceedings can take months, with no guarantee that at the end of the process Hastings would be forced from office.

On Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015, shortly before 2 p.m., a sworn complaint was filed in Highland County Probate Court by five Hillsboro citizens: Craig Jackson, a Hillsboro city employee; his wife, Ariana Jackson; former Hillsboro Mayor Betty Bishop; Kirby Ellison, a former Hillsboro administrative assistant for former Mayor Richard Zink; and Hillsboro resident Lisa Leeth.

Those individuals are citizens of Hillsboro, as the law governing such complaints requires they be. They all have had public differences with Hastings.

For instance, two days before the civil action was filed, Craig and Ariana Jackson both appeared at a city council meeting, with Craig Jackson saying that Facebook comments by Hastings had placed him in “an unsafe work environment,” and Ariana Jackson, his wife, calling on Hastings to resign.

Bishop publicly opposed Hastings’ plan to dismantle Hillsboro Fire & Rescue in favor of a contract with the Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District, and then served as campaign manager for Hastings’ opponent in the 2015 election, Pam Limes.

Ellison was fired by Hastings when he first took office, and she then sued the city over her firing. She recently won the suit and the city was ordered to re-employ Ellison “with appropriate back pay.” The city is appealing the decision. She also was a critic of Hastings’ handling of city fire coverage.

Leeth, who ran for council in 2013 and lost by a coin flip after a tie vote with Claudia Klein, was an active supporter of the Limes for Mayor campaign.

When the civil complaint was filed under those names, Hastings’ first reaction was, “This is absolutely a political witch hunt,” a sentiment shared by other observers who have followed Hillsboro’s political and legal battles in recent years.

In fact, many observers have said that having the civil case filed under the names of individuals who have openly opposed Hastings on various issues and who campaigned against him was a decision that opened the door for Hastings to claim political motivations.

Others say that those who signed the complaint should be commended for having the courage to do so, and it would have been difficult to find five other residents willing to risk the public scrutiny that was bound to come their way.

Retaliation feared

But even though the signers of the civil action have publicly been at odds with Hastings for a variety of reasons, the idea for the suit apparently came from “the law enforcement community,” according to the city law director.

Fred Beery, in his role as Hillsboro’s law director, is required under Ohio Revised Code 733.72 to represent citizens who file a civil action against municipal officers when allegations of misfeasance or malfeasance are made. The law requires him to help citizens prepare the suit and to represent the plaintiffs in probate court.

Beery said Tuesday, “I got asked, ‘How does a mayor get removed?’” He declined to identify who asked him that question, but he said he explained there are two ways, one through a petition process, and the other through the kind of civil action that was ultimately filed.

As to how the citizens he is representing in the civil complaint became aware of the issue alleged in the suit, Beery would not be specific, but acknowledged that it “came out of the law enforcement community.” He added, “I think the fear was there would be retaliation.”

While Hastings said Wednesday that he has been advised not to discuss the case, he did say, “I cannot think of a single example where I have ever retaliated against anyone. That would put me on the same level as the people who are against me.”

The civil complaint that was eventually filed accused Hastings of unlawfully receiving a refund of a $500 vacant property fee that he had paid in 2014 in regard to his recent purchase of a North High Street building commonly known as the old county annex building.

The civil complaint stated, “Investigation revealed that Defendant recovered a deposit… utilizing the signature stamp of the city safety and service director without lawful authority and without being entitled to the refund.”

The source of the investigation referred to in the complaint was not specified. The complaint does not say who conducted the investigation, how the signers of the complaint became aware of an investigation, or how they came into possession of copies of documents which they included as exhibits that were filed with the suit, including copies of the refund check issued to Hastings and the document approving the refund.

On the same day the civil complaint was filed – in fact, just two hours later at 4 p.m. – a search warrant was issued based on an affidavit presented by Sgt. Randy Sanders, a detective with the Highland County Sheriff’s Office.

The affidavit filed by Sanders focused on the same issue contained in the civil case filed earlier in probate court, but with more detail, along with allegations of the misuse of a city dumpster. The affidavit stated that Sanders and Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera had, on Dec. 16, 2015, “received a report” from Hillsboro Police Chief Todd Whited “that a fraud had occurred with the use of a forged document in the city offices.”

The affidavit was primarily based on an interview conducted by Whited with Todd Wilkin, the city safety and service director. Also present with Whited for the interview with Wilkin was an unnamed agent from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, according to the affidavit. The affidavit does not state when the interview with Wilkin was conducted, or what or when something came to Whited’s attention that caused him to initiate the interview.

According to the affidavit, in conjunction with his interview with Whited and the BCI agent, Wilkin “turned over copies of paperwork showing authorization to reimburse and the reimbursement of the $500.00 to Drew Hastings. Todd Wilkin told officers that it was not his signature and he did not authorize the payment or his signature to be used for the reimbursement.”

Bowen takes over

Whited took the evidence from his interview with Wilkin to Barrera and Sanders at the sheriff’s office. Sanders is a longtime law enforcement officer who started out with the Hillsboro Police Department.

Sanders is also the son of Betty Bishop, and when sheriff officials realized a civil suit had been filed on virtually the same issue, with Bishop as one of the plaintiffs, they realized it could create a perception that politics was behind the investigation. Because of that, Sgt. Chris Bowen has been designated to lead the investigation in the Hastings case instead of Sanders, Barrera said this week.

Barrera said that Sanders’ integrity is above reproach, regardless of whatever political motivations against Hastings others might have. But to avoid the perception of impropriety, Bowen has taken over the case, said the sheriff.

Barrera said neither he nor his department was involved with providing information from the case to any private citizens for the purpose of filing a civil suit. He said sheriff’s officials were not aware that a civil case was being pursued until after it was filed.

Whited responded to calls for comment this week by replying with an email Wednesday, saying, “At this time I would feel that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on this investigation as it is currently ongoing and being handled by the Highland County Sheriff’s Office. I do not want to jeopardize any ongoing investigations or court proceedings, nor will I release any details until the appropriate time. Meanwhile, our focus and efforts are still on our daily operations for the City of Hillsboro and the citizens we serve.”

On Tuesday, Hastings’ attorney, James Boulger of Chillicothe, said he was unaware of the series of events that led to the filing of the civil case.

“The information about how the facts set forth in the complaint were supplied is new to me,” said Boulger. “It appears there is a backyard politic I am unaware of.”

Boulger said, “If there was an attempt to obstruct the exercise of official duties” would raise an issue that would “also be worthy of investigation.” But he stressed he was unaware of all the facts surrounding any connections between the civil case and the criminal investigation.

Boulger said he was glad that Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins has asked the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to handle any criminal proceedings against Hastings, agreeing with Collins that the attorney general’s office is experienced in such cases.

“With the assistance of the attorney general, hopefully we can bring this to a conclusion,” said Boulger.

Probate Judge Kevin Greer is currently weighing a motion made by Boulger on Monday to dismiss the civil case. Boulger’s motion is based on precedent set in a case involving former Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes, in which the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that an elected official cannot be removed for alleged acts committed during a term outside the official’s current term. Hastings began his second term in office on Jan. 1.

Beery filed a memorandum Monday opposing dismissal based on a portion of the vacant building ordinance that states that failure to pay the vacant building fee constitutes an ongoing violation.

Meanwhile, Barrera said this week that the criminal investigation is ongoing. According to the affidavit filed with the search warrant, in addition to the question of the $500 refund, investigators are looking into allegations by some city employees that Hastings has used a city dumpster for the disposal of items from personal properties. The affidavit states that the evidence could lead to charges of forgery and theft in office. Other sources have said that additional allegations are also being investigated.

Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.

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