Almost a year to the day since he was re-elected mayor of Hillsboro, and 11 months since a criminal investigation was launched against him, Drew Hastings will stand trial Monday on four felony counts related to questions about his residency, allegations of theft connected to the use of a city dumpster, and tampering with records based on the refund of a $500 vacant building deposit he had paid.
Exactly when opening arguments or testimony will begin is questionable, since jury selection beginning Monday morning might take longer than for a typical trial, a fact acknowledged by the large jury pool of 80 or more county residents who have been summoned on Monday. The usual jury pool for a trial in Highland County is about half as large.
Both the prosecution and defense recently filed briefs summarizing their cases. Special prosecutor Robert F. Smith of the state auditor’s office filed a brief arguing that:
• Water usage records will show that Hastings lived at a farm outside of town more than at his Hillsboro residence, and the Hillsboro residence has no bed or bedroom for his stepdaughter, while his farmhouse contains two bedrooms and an office.
• Rumpke bills will show that Hastings cost taxpayers “thousands of extra dollars in dumping fees” through his alleged use of a city dumpster for personal debris, an allegation resulting in two charges, and;
• An allegedly forged memo requesting the $500 vacant building refund resulted in theft based on the document including the stamped signature of Safety and Service Director Todd Wilkin, which Wilkin said he did not authorize.
Hastings’ attorney, James Boulger of Chillicothe, filed a brief countering that:
• The residency question is a matter that, based on precedent, should have been pursued through a complaint with the board of elections when Hastings registered to vote or filed his petitions, not through a criminal trial.
• The charges involving the use of a city dumpster for personal debris improperly combine Hastings’ alleged private acts and his role as mayor, involve a dumpster that was accessible publicly with no signs indicating a restriction on use, and requires too much speculation from a jury in regard to parsing whatever value is involved.
• Lax enforcement of the vacant building ordinance, coupled with the likelihood of an administrative assistant invoking her privilege against self-incrimination, casts doubt on the record tampering charge.
In January, Highland County Common Pleas Judge Rocky Coss, after appointing Smith as special prosecutor, also appointed Julie Korte from the Ohio Ethics Commission as a second special prosecutor. Last month, Coss granted Korte’s motion to be withdrawn from the case because of what Korte said was insufficient evidence of ethics violations.
Coss recused himself after Hastings was indicted by a Highland County grand jury in July. The case is being presided over by special Judge Patricia Ann Cosgrove of Summit County, who issued a gag order on attorneys and witnesses at Hastings’ Aug. 1 arraignment, and expanded on that order in a later filing.
The case began in mid-December of last year. First, five Hillsboro residents filed a civil complaint against the mayor alleging malfeasance based on the $500 refund. Within hours, the criminal investigation was launched on the same issue, with search warrants served at the city administration building. The civil case was dismissed by Judge Kevin Greer due to an Ohio Supreme Court precedent involving the timing of the suit.
The case has drawn statewide and national attention, in part due to Hastings’ long career as a standup comedian. After moving to the Hillsboro area about a decade ago, Hastings began purchasing and renovating various buildings in the city, often as the only bidder on properties up for auction. He first ran for mayor in 2011, winning with 62 percent of the vote.
He was re-elected in 2015 with 59 percent of the vote, despite controversies including his successful push to disband Hillsboro Fire & Rescue in favor of a contract with the Paint Creek Joint/EMS Fire District, and a citizen challenge to his residency in 2013 filed by a Hillsboro police officer. That complaint was investigated by the state attorney general’s office, which concluded there was insufficient evidence that Hastings did not live in Hillsboro.
Just days before the civil complaint was filed and the criminal investigation was launched last December, a group of citizens gathered at a city council meeting to complain that a Facebook post by Hastings – part of which said that “blacks have all but formally declared war on whites” – was inappropriate at best and racist at worst. Hastings apologized for the post.
But many credit Hastings with improving the finances of the city, upgrading the uptown area and leading efforts to tackle rundown and abandoned properties.
When Hastings was indicted, state Auditor Dave Yost issued a statement saying, “Mr. Hastings has long complained about the length of time a careful, proper investigation takes. That investigation is now complete, and the evidence will be made public appropriately, in a court of law. I am confident the jury of his peers will find that evidence amounts to proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Hastings said at the time, “I am only guilty of trying to represent our citizens without the consent of an established political structure.”
If Hastings is convicted of a felony, he will be forced to step down from office under Ohio law. Jury selection begins 8 a.m. Monday.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.