The civil case against Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings was continued Monday after the attorney for the plaintiffs filed a last-minute motion claiming that city code contains a provision that makes the allegation against Hastings a “continuing violation.”
Also, Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins said Monday that she has asked the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to appoint a special prosecutor to handle any criminal prosecution of Hastings that might be filed because that office is more familiar with the prosecution of a public official, and because she is related by marriage to an employee of the mayor’s office.
On Monday, in the civil case, Fred Beery, the city law director who by law is handling the case for plaintiffs Craig Jackson, Ariana Jackson, Betty Bishop, Kirby Ellison and Lisa Leeth, filed a memorandum shortly before the start of Monday’s 9 a.m. hearing. Judge Kevin Greer had previously asked that additional arguments be filed by last Wednesday.
In the memorandum, Beery said he does not dispute that the case cited by Greer as precedent – a 1970 case involving a similar situation with former Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes – is the applicable case law. But he said Hastings’ failure “to file a plan and the requisite fee for a property is a continuing violation.”
At the heart of the civil case is the claim that after he paid a $500 vacant building fee, Hastings received a refund of the fee “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.”
At a Dec. 23 hearing, Greer indicated he was “leaning” toward dismissing the case based on the Stokes precedent because the allegation against Hastings was a first-term matter, and Hastings was moving into his second term, which began Jan. 1.
But in his filing on Monday, Beery cited city code 165.99, which is part of the vacant property ordinance and which states, “Whoever violates any of the provisions of this chapter shall be guilty of an unclassified misdemeanor. A separate offense shall be deemed committed each day during or on which a violation occurs or continues.”
Beery wrote, “This underlying taking of the deposit belonging to the city of Hillsboro created just such a continuing violation and, therefore, this matter should not be dismissed as moot.”
Beery included an affidavit signed Monday by Gary Lewis, the city auditor, acknowledging that the city had not received a vacant building payment from Hastings “since it processed a refund pursuant to the letter of instruction from the City Safety and Service Director in June 2015.”
At Monday’s hearing, Beery asked Hastings’ attorney, James Boulger, if he had studied Beery’s memorandum. Boulger said he had just received it, and Greer gave him a few minutes to look it over, as Hastings sat with Boulger at the defense table.
Boulger said the Stokes case – in which the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that an elected official could not be removed from office for acts allegedly committed during a term outside the current term – was still applicable, and asked Greer to dismiss the case.
Greer said he would rule on the question by the end of the week, and asked attorneys to file any additional arguments in the next few days. Greer also discussed the time frame of holding a jury trial if he rules that the case will proceed. If a trial was held in the civil case and if Hastings was convicted, the penalty is removal from office.
After Monday’s hearing, Boulger said he believes there is case law favorable to Hastings that addresses Beery’s latest contention. He said he had not been notified yet of any criminal charges being brought against the mayor.
In addition to the civil case is an ongoing criminal investigation, and Collins, the county prosecutor, said Monday she asked the state attorney general’s office to step in because she is not as familiar with such cases as are the specialists who work with the attorney general.
Collins said she is also related by marriage to Heather Collins, an administrative assistant for the mayor, and “I want to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”
“They have people who specialize in this kind of law,” said Collins of the attorney general’s office. She said neither she nor most prosecutors in neighboring counties would have the time needed to delve into what will likely be a complicated case, particularly when it comes to separating alleged actions that might be illegal versus those deemed unethical, which are different standards.
“That was three-fourths of the reason” that she asked the attorney general to handle the case, said Collins.
The civil case against Hastings was filed Dec. 16, the same day that the Highland County Sheriff’s Office issued a search warrant for the city administration building. Like the civil case, the criminal probe involves the $500 rebate check, along with allegations that Hastings has used a city dumpster to dispose of items from personal property, according to an affidavit filed with the search warrant. Investigators are also looking into additional allegations made by city employees against the mayor, according to sources.
The search warrant affidavit, signed by Sgt. Randy Sanders of the sheriff’s office, states that there is reason to believe Hastings could be guilty of forgery and theft in office because of the rebate check, the use of a city dumpster and the alleged use of a city employee to assist with disposing of personal property. The affidavit states that when questioned, Wilkin told investigators he had not signed or authorized his signature stamp on a letter processing the $500 refund.
Hastings was re-elected to a second four-year term in November with 59.4 percent of the vote. He was administered the oath for his second term on Thursday by Lee Koogler, the city council president. He has said he looks forward to defending himself and “refuting” the allegations.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.