Attorneys for the prosecution and defense filed documents Wednesday in Highland County Probate Court in preparation for Monday’s follow-up hearing in a civil case against Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings.
The civil suit filed against Hastings, signed by local residents Craig Jackson, a city employee, his wife, Ariana Jackson, former Hillsboro administrative assistant Kirby Ellison, local resident Lisa Leeth and former Hillsboro Mayor Betty Bishop, centers on a $500 refund Hastings received from a vacant property fee he had paid for a building he owns on North High Street.
The suit alleges that Hastings is guilty of misfeasance or malfeasance in office because he “recovered a deposit he paid to the city under the vacant building ordinance by preparing and submitting a letter to the city auditor utilizing the signature stamp of the city safety and service director without lawful authority and without being entitled to the refund.” The letter was prepared June 24, and the refund was dated July 8, according to supporting documents.
According to an affidavit filed as part of a coinciding criminal investigation, Hillsboro Safety and Service Director Todd Wilkin told investigators he did not sign or authorize his signature stamp to be used to approve the refund to the mayor.
Under Ohio law, the penalty for being found guilty of malfeasance in a civil case is removal from office. But at an initial hearing on Dec. 23, Judge Kevin Greer said he was “leaning” toward declaring the case moot based on precedent set by an Ohio Supreme Court ruling that an officeholder could not be removed outside of the term when the alleged acts occurred. Hastings was re-elected in November to a second term, which begins Jan. 1.
Greer asked attorneys to file arguments on the subject by Wednesday, and Hillsboro Law Director Fred Beery, who by law is prosecuting the case for the plaintiffs, said Wednesday he had provided the court with a list of relevant cases.
Beery said that even though one of Hastings’ terms is ending and another is set to begin, Ohio Revised Code 3.01 can be interpreted to indicate the terms are “seamless.” That section of law states, “A person holding an office of public trust shall continue therein until his successor is elected or appointed and qualified, unless otherwise provided in the constitution or laws of this state.”
Beery also said that since Hastings received a refund of the vacant property fee, an argument can be made that there is a continuing violation of the code stretching from one term to the next.
But Hastings’ attorney, James Boulger of Chillicothe, who filed a brief on the subject with the court this week, said Wednesday that the case involving former Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and cited by Greer last week remains the guiding precedent.
“The basic facts are virtually identical” between the Stokes and Hastings cases, said Boulger. He said that Hillsboro’s ordinance spelling out the terms of the mayor are clear, and “it’s hard to fathom how this notion of seamlessness” can be applied from one term to the next.
Stokes was the subject of a similar civil complaint filed by five Cleveland residents seeking to remove him from office for malfeasance.
But in May 1970, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Stokes, then in his second term, “could not be removed from office for any malfeasance that may have occurred in his first term,” according to an archived Associated Press report. The court said that Ohio law does not authorize a public official’s removal for any misconduct “occurring in a term prior to re-election,” according to the AP story.
Monday’s hearing begins at 9 a.m. in the probate courtroom at the Highland County Courthouse.
The criminal investigation regarding Hastings is ongoing, with officials looking into both the matter of the vacant building refund along with allegations by city employees that the mayor or “someone driving Drew Hastings’ truck” had dumped building materials and carpet from Hastings’ private property “into the city owned dumpster located on Railroad St. in Hillsboro,” according to an affidavit filed with a search warrant on Dec. 16.
The affidavit, signed by Sgt. Randy Sanders of the Highland County Sheriff’s Office, states that potential charges could include forgery and theft in office.
While the precedent set by the Stokes case might preclude Hastings from being removed from office on a malfeasance conviction related to events during his first term, the outcome of a criminal case could be different if it involves felony charges.
Ohio law states that someone convicted of a felony cannot hold public office if the office “involves substantial management or control over the property of a state agency, political subdivision, or private entity.”
In a case last summer, state Rep. Steven Kraus (R-Sandusky) was convicted of felony theft in relation to his work as an auctioneer. The (Toledo) Blade quoted House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger (R-Clarksville) as saying the felony conviction meant Kraus’ seat was immediately rendered vacant.
“Under Ohio law, a public official against whom a guilty verdict is found on a felony criminal charge is automatically removed from office by operation of the law,” Rosenberger said, according to The Blade.
Hastings has said he looks forward to defending himself “and refuting this,” and his attorney said after last week’s hearing that the mayor “wants to resolve these things on their merits, rather than technical questions.”
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.