The felony indictments issued Tuesday against Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings were sealed until he was served with them because the special prosecutor in the case said he worried that Hastings might flee – a fear the mayor said Wednesday was “ludicrous.”
Meanwhile, local reaction from government and party officials to the indictments against Hastings ranged from taking a wait-and-see attitude to weighing in on the politics – or lack thereof – behind the investigation.
According to a filing with the indictments handed down Tuesday by a Highland County grand jury, the special prosecutor, Robert F. Smith with the office of Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, asked for the indictments to remain sealed “until the summons is returned as served based on the fear that the defendant may flee should he become aware of the indictment.”
As The Times-Gazette previously reported, the Hastings indictment was not included among a list of 12 other indicted individuals when the list was first made public early Tuesday afternoon. Hastings was served by a sheriff’s deputy while having lunch at Bob Evans around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The Hastings investigation has been a matter of public knowledge and media coverage both locally and nationally since it began last December. Hastings said that he, like many others, had heard his case was being presented to the grand jury Tuesday. He said he made it a point to stay in town.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he said in regard to the prosecutor’s assertion that he might flee. He said he attended a ribbon cutting ceremony at noon Tuesday at the new Adena facility in Hillsboro before going to Bob Evans for lunch. He was at the restaurant when a sheriff’s deputy served him with the notice of the indictments around 1:30 p.m.
The mayor said he is not going anywhere. “I’m doing my job and doing business as usual for the city,” said Hastings. “I have multiple investments in this town. My home is here.”
Even with Tuesday’s indictments, Hastings kept his sense of humor. He sent out a Tweet Tuesday afternoon saying, “The Sheriff’s office served my indictment while I was eating at Bob Evans. That is the fastest service I’ve ever gotten at a Bob Evans.”
Hastings’ arraignment, originally set for July 27, has been moved to Aug. 1 because of a scheduling conflict with the new judge assigned to the case, Patricia Ann Cosgrove of Summit County. Cosgrove was appointed after Highland County Common Pleas Judge Rocky Coss recused himself Tuesday.
Lee Koogler, president of Hillsboro City Council and, like Hastings, a Republican, said, Wednesday it is “certainly a sad day for the city when its sitting mayor has been under investigation and is now indicted criminally.”
Koogler said, “We’ll see how it plays out. We’ll continue to function as a city and continue to serve our citizens.”
Paulette Donley, chair of the Highland County Republican Executive Committee, said the investigation has taken a long time, but said it was important to “follow the process” and to “be patient, and support our community.”
But she said the role that politics have played cannot be ignored, noting that an initial civil complaint against Hastings back in December was signed by three people “who were actually involved in his opponent’s campaign.”
Donley said she had been fielding phone calls from people “trying to figure out how to support him.” She said, “People here dearly love him.” But she said Hastings has been guilty of sometimes making “bad choices,” and encouraged Republicans and other members of the community to let the judicial process unfold.
Bill Alexander, a Democratic member of city council, said Wednesday he feels badly for Hastings, but doesn’t agree with those who say the investigation is a “witch hunt” or that Hastings has been singled out.
“I feel tremendous sympathy for Drew and his family,” said Alexander. “Drew has done so much for our community. Even though some of it has been controversial, I respect him for his sincerity.”
But Alexander said he disagrees that politics are behind the criminal investigation. He said the signers of the civil complaint have no connection to the criminal investigation or the felony charges that were filed Tuesday.
“I have confidence in our court system to come to a fair resolution,” said Alexander. He said the accusations against the mayor “are pretty clear” and need to be addressed.
Dinah Phillips, chair of the Highland County Democratic Party, also said she does not believe the investigation is politically driven. She said she does not take any satisfaction when elected officials of either party find themselves in legal trouble, because it discourages good people from becoming involved in politics.
“It’s why a lot of people are reluctant to run for office,” said Phillips. “There is the attitude that they’re all crooked. It unfairly gives all politicians a bad name, and it keeps good people out.”
Betty Bishop, the former Democratic mayor, campaign manager for Hastings’ 2015 opponent Pam Limes, and one of the people who signed the December civil complaint against Hastings over a $500 vacant property refund, told the Associated Press it was a “sad day” for the community, adding, “All I can do is pray instead of criticize.”
After a seven-month investigation, Hastings was indicted Tuesday for election falsification, theft, theft in office and tampering with records. Election falsification and theft are fifth-degree felonies. Theft in office is a fourth-degree felony. Tampering with records is a third-degree felony.
According to a press release from Yost, the charges stem from allegedly listing a false address on his Declaration of Candidacy form, for claiming a city refund of $500 for a vacant building he owned and for altering documents related to the refund, and for instructing a contractor to use city dumpsters to dispose of construction debris.
Hastings has called the investigation a “witch hunt,” and on Tuesday he said, “I am only guilty of trying to represent our citizens without the consent of an established political structure.”
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.