The July meeting of the Highland County Grand Jury will happen a week later than usual, but whether a special prosecutor will be ready to present evidence in the investigation of Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings is unclear.
The grand jury usually meets the first Tuesday of each month. But because of the July 4th holiday falling on Monday, the grand jury will not meet until July 12, according to Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins.
Collins said Wednesday she has not had a request for grand jury time from the special prosecutor from the office of Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, but that could still change. Robert F. Smith, deputy legal counsel with Yost’s office, is the special prosecutor appointed to the Hastings case, and according to news reports he has been busy in the same role with a case involving another Ohio mayor, Brian S. Kuhn of Lancaster.
According to an article Saturday in the Columbus Dispatch, Kuhn is charged with failing to file state income tax returns in 2014 and 2015, before he became mayor, and Smith “also is investigating payroll work that (Kuhn’s) former accounting-services company did for Bloom Township, the township’s lawyer said.”
According to the Dispatch, Smith was appointed special prosecutor in the Kuhn case in December, after Kuhn was elected but before he took office in January. Kuhn, a Republican who previously served as Lancaster’s safety and service director, was indicted on the tax charges in early June. He has pled not guilty to the charges.
The charges against the Lancaster mayor came just after his wife, Bridget Kuhn, pled guilty to 11 charges connected to private business matters, including grand theft, money laundering and tampering with evidence, according to the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette, in a deal that saw the dismissal of the bulk of an original 50-count indictment against her. She is scheduled to be sentenced July 8, according to the newspaper.
Like the Hastings investigation, the probe into Brian Kuhn has been accompanied by allegations that politics played a role in the investigation. The chair of the Fairfield County Republican Party, even while recommending that Kuhn resign, questioned whether the investigation of the mayor’s wife played into Smith’s decision to seek felony indictments against the new mayor for failure to file state taxes, rather than pursue it as a civil matter.
The Eagle-Gazette, citing a state tax office spokesman, reported, “The Ohio Department of Taxation, which processes more than 5.4 million returns annually, refers fewer than 100 taxpayers a year to county prosecutors seeking criminal charges for not filing returns. The vast majority of taxpayers who don’t file a return are pursued through civil action.”
But Smith, through a spokesperson, told the newspaper, “I’m not the one who created (the law). The legislature did, and they made it a felony. Other prosecutors might not file it, but I file these charges when I find it, because it’s a felony.”
Yost’s office previously told The Times-Gazette that costs are not broken down separately for individual investigations. Similarly, Smith told the Eagle-Gazette regarding the Kuhn case that “he doesn’t know what the investigation cost,” but he said the state auditor will not charge local government.
After Collins recused herself from prosecuting the Hastings case, Smith was appointed special prosecutor in January to handle an investigation that began in December, just after Hastings, a Republican, was re-elected in November to a second term that began in January.
Along with Collins, city prosecutor Fred Beery and Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera both said Wednesday they had no knowledge of any movement in the Hastings case. A spokesperson for the auditor’s office said Wednesday afternoon that he would seek an update from Smith on the status of the investigation, although he suggested there would likely be no comment. He did not call back as of 6 p.m.
The latest public development in the Hastings case came in April when a warrant was issued to confiscate the home computers of Debbie Sansone, Hastings’ administrative assistant. Affidavits filed with that warrant indicated that Sansone had also become a subject of the investigation.
Affidavits have indicated that investigators are exploring issues involving a $500 rebate Hastings received for a vacant property fee he had paid. The refund was allegedly authorized using the stamped signature of Safety and Service Director Todd Wilkin without his consent. Other claims are that Hastings had used a city dumpster for personal items and that he had asked a witness to “lie” about the use of the dumpster.
In early February, investigators conducted a late-night raid of the mayor’s city residence in order to look for proof of residency, according to an affidavit. After ordering Hastings’ visiting father-in-law out of the house, they documented items of personal clothing, appliances, furniture and a child’s toys, along with describing a comparison of water usage at various locations listed as Hastings’ residences.
The criminal investigation kicked off just a couple of hours after a civil case was filed in December against Hastings by five Hillsboro residents on the $500 rebate. The civil case was dismissed in January based on technical issues.
While typically declining to comment on the investigation, Yost’s office did previously clarify that there is “no special audit” of the city connected to the investigation.
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 auditor’s office confirmed again in early June that there is no special audit.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.