Testimony in the trial of Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings will likely wrap up Wednesday, with the case going to the jury before the end of the day.
Opening arguments and testimony got underway Tuesday after a full day of jury selection Monday, with the city’s safety and service director testifying that he did not sign a letter authorizing a $500 vacant property refund to Hastings that is the basis for one of the four charges against him, but acknowledging under cross examination that when the issue first came to light, he had wondered whether he might have approved the refund through an email to the city auditor.
Also, Hillsboro Police Chief Todd Whited testified that he called the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation to ask the agency to investigate Hastings after he was tipped off about 2×4 boards left in a dumpster at the city lot on Railroad Street. But he acknowledged under cross examination that his decision to pursue a theft case against the mayor came shortly after a disagreement with Hastings about police department staffing.
And, a recording played for the jury shows Hastings asking a witness to “play dumb about the whole thing.”
In their opening arguments and through their questioning of witnesses throughout the day, special prosecutor Robert F. Smith and defense attorney James Boulger made clear the respective cases they are trying to build for jurors.
Smith told jurors the case “is about the abuse of power” involving a mayor who “thought the laws didn’t apply to him.”
He said that while none of the allegations are “earthshaking” – including the $500 refund, the alleged use of a city dumpster for personal trash, and the allegation that he lives on a farm outside of town rather than in the city – they represent an abuse of the mayor’s office and a disregard for taxpayer dollars.
But while Smith said the letter authorizing the $500 refund was a forgery, he added, “Do we know who prepared it? No.”
Boulger countered that the evidence for the case was long ignored and was only being used now as a political vendetta that began when Hastings won re-election, “as though a bell sounded that led us here today.”
He said that after Hastings won last year’s election, “there was an immediate inquiry as to how to remove the mayor,” led by the police chief, and said there are others who are guilty of infractions similar to those with which Hastings is accused, but who are escaping prosecution as they testify against the mayor.
Boulger said Hastings acknowledges having some debris from personal properties dumped in a city dumpster, but made the argument throughout his questioning of various witnesses that it does not add up to an amount of money constituting a felony. He said evidence would show that the document authorizing the $500 refund was created on a different date than the date that appears on the letter.
Todd Wilkin, who was hired by Hastings as safety and service director in 2013, was the last witness of the day and was on the stand the longest. He testified that administrative assistants Debbie Sansone and Heather Collins had told him in 2015 that Hastings wanted the $500 vacant property fee refunded on a building he owned at 135 N. High St. Wilkin said he informed them that the mayor was ineligible for the refund, but later learned the refund had been issued anyway.
After BCI and Highland County sheriff’s investigators became involved in December 2015, Wilkin said he was shown the document authorizing the refund with his signature, which he said he compared to a stamp with his signature, concluding that they matched.
He said he took the letter to Gary Lewis, the city auditor, and asked Lewis, “Now that you know the letter exists, will you be contacting the state auditor?”
But earlier, Annette Black, the deputy city auditor, testified that she had shown the letter to Lewis when she first received it several months earlier, asking Lewis which account the money for the refund should come from.
Former city street supervisor Steve Pence had testified earlier in the day that Wilkin had himself ordered debris removed from one of Hastings’ properties and taken to the city dumpster.
Pence said that Wilkin had“sent us there to remove construction debris” from the old city building which Hastings had purchased, amounting to “two or three dump truck loads” that were taken to the city dumpster. But Wilkin testified that he had only had them remove old city records that were left behind and which are now in storage.
“I never instructed Steve Pence to load a dumpster,” said Wilkin.
Wilkin also testified that he confronted Hastings once about using the city dumpster, but the mayor told him it was a “perk.”
Boulger asked Wilkin why he didn’t report the dumping as a crime. Wilkin replied, “At that time I didn’t know what it was” that Hastings was dumping.
“What difference would it make?” asked Boulger.
“I didn’t know what I had witnessed, to be honest with you,” said Wilkin.
Boulger asked Wilkin how many city dumpsters existed throughout the town. Wilkin said he did not know, but Black – who handles the Rumpke bills – testified earlier that there were “probably around 10,” and she was not aware of any policies prohibiting city workers from using other dumpsters if some dumpsters became full.
Earlier, Sean Adkins, the city public works superintendent, had testified that every city employee has a key to the Railroad Street yard which holds the dumpster Hastings is accused of improperly using.
Boulger asked Wilkin if he recalled a recorded interview with investigators when he urged them to wrap up the investigation quickly because he was worried about losing his job. After Wilkin went back and forth with Boulger over the wording the attorney was using, Judge Patricia Ann Cosgrove told Wilkin to “answer the question.” Wilkin said he did not recall “expressing those thoughts.”
Wilkin said he did not recall an interview with an investigator in which he said, according to a transcript Boulger presented, that he asked the city auditor whether he had authorized the $500 refund via an email he might have sent to the auditor, but after reading the transcript acknowledged that it must have taken place.
“I would say I made those comments, yes,” said Wilkin.
Smith followed up on the comment about the email, which in full showed Wilkin telling an investigator that he asked Lewis, “Did I send you an email?” and adding to the investigator, “I asked, I didn’t know.”
Paint Creek Fire Chief Bradley George testified that he had conducted the initial vacant property inspection on Hastings’ property, deeming it to be vacant. But when Boulger showed him a copy of the city ordinance which specifies that the fire chief, not the administration, is supposed to authorize refunds, George expressed surprise.
Wilkin testified later that after George became unavailable for a while to conduct inspections, he, in conjunction with the city law director, authorized another official to conduct the inspections, several of which have been carried out since then, he said.
Several street and water department workers testified throughout the day that they had witnessed Hastings or someone driving Hastings’ pickup truck dump construction debris at the Railroad Street dumpster. But under cross-examination, those who were asked said they had not told Hastings that it was improper, and some, when asked, said they did not consider it at the time to be a crime, and did not report it. Several were vague about dates or times when they said they witnessed various events.
Under cross examination by Boulger, Adkins said he made monthly reports to city council, but never reported Hastings dumping material. Asked if he knew the weight of materials dumped by Hastings, he replied he did not know because the city does not weigh it.
Smith countered with bills showing an increase in costs from Rumpke from what he said was a normal range of about $2,000 annually to as much as $6,000 in 2015, which he attributed to materials dumped by Hastings, since he said no city demolition projects were happening then.
Pence testified that he once saw three rolls of carpet in Hastings’ truck in front of Bells Opera House, which Hastings owns, and later saw Hastings’ truck pull in and out of the Railroad Street yard, then saw the carpet in the city dumpster.
Under questioning from Boulger, several witnesses acknowledged there were no signs prohibiting public dumping at the Railroad Street property, and that the gate was unlocked and open during business hours Monday through Friday.
Sean Mahorney, a private contractor who did work for Hastings and testified that he dumped material for the mayor at the city dumpster “three or four times,” said Hastings gave him a key, but he never had to use it.
A tape recorded conversation between Mahorney and Hastings was played for the jury, which Mahorney said was arranged with sheriff investigators Chris Bowen and Randy Sanders. He said it was recorded by phone while he, his wife, Bowen and Sanders sat in a cemetery on Mad River Road. He said he had an agreement with the state that he would not be charged.
In the recording, Hastings asks if Mahorney has any animal traps he can use. Mahorney tells Hastings that he found a card from Bowen in his door asking him to call the investigator. He tells Hastings he assumes it is about the dumpster controversy.
The recording does not show Hastings asking Mahorney to “lie,” which was a word used by the Hillsboro Police Department back in January when it filed a misdemeanor charge against Hastings for attempting to obstruct official business, based on an interview with Mahorney. That charge was filed in municipal court and then quickly dismissed.
But Hastings is heard on the recording suggesting Mahorney should “play dumb about the whole thing.” He adds that “five —-holes are looking for any stretch of the imagination to hang me on… they want to charge me with a felony for dumping trash.” He says on the recording that “my argument is, ‘I pay thousands of dollars for dumpsters… ”
Hastings adds in the recording, “If you don’t give them anything, they don’t have anything to take me to court.”
Whited, the Hillsboro police chief, said that after he photographed the 2x4s he found in the city dumpster on Dec. 11, he contacted BCI and met at the sheriff’s office with them, handing the investigation off because he thought it would be a conflict of interest for city police to investigate the mayor.
Boulger, on cross examination, noted that Dec. 11 was about “five weeks after the election,” and asked Whited if that was before or after he asked the city law director, “What would it take to remove the mayor?”
“Before,” Whited replied.
Fred Beery, the city law director, told The Times-Gazette earlier this year that the civil suit launched against Hastings on the $500 refund came about after someone from the “law enforcement community” asked him, “How does a mayor get removed?” Beery declined to be more specific at the time, but Whited in his testimony on Tuesday seemed to confirm he asked the question.
Boulger asked Whited how many other times he had called in BCI on a case. “One other,” replied the chief. Under questioning by Boulger, Whited acknowledged he had a disagreement with Hastings over police department staffing shortly before contacting BCI over the dumpster issue.
Whited testified that after he alerted BCI to the dumpster issue, Wilkin told him about the $500 refund issue, and he in turn informed BCI and sheriff investigators about that subject.
Other testimony on Tuesday included a video deposition with administrative assistant Heather Collins, who testified she was angry when she found the document authorizing the $500 rebate on her office chair. She said she filed it. She testified that she had used Wilkin’s stamped signature “hundreds of times,” but had an agreement with the auditor that when she used the stamp, she would initial it. She said she never used the stamp without Wilkin’s verbal or written permission.
Testimony on Wednesday is expected to include sheriff investigators Bowen and Sanders, along with Lewis, the city auditor. Hastings is likely to take the stand in his own defense.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.