There is “not a special audit” being conducted by the office of Ohio Auditor Dave Yost in the matter involving Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings, the auditor’s office said Wednesday – but that apparently doesn’t mean there still might not be one.
Meanwhile, Hastings’ attorney, James Boulger of Chillicothe, said Wednesday he is “puzzled” by the fact the investigation has not concluded.
Dominic Binkley, a public information officer for the state auditor’s office, responded to an inquiry by The Times-Gazette into the status of the Hastings case by calling back Wednesday and clarifying that there is “not a special audit,” which was a deviation from the “no comment” usually provided by the auditor’s office. After more questions were posed, Binkley said again, “We don’t have a special audit.”
According to the auditor’s website, “When fraud or misuse of public funds is suspected, the Auditor of State’s office conducts special audits or special investigations.”
Binkley said he could not answer additional questions, such as whether his statement indicates there is still an ongoing investigation, or whether the matter has been completed from the auditor’s viewpoint.
Binkley said that Robert F. Smith, the special prosecutor from the auditor’s office who was appointed by Highland County Common Pleas Judge Rocky Coss and who has been leading the investigation, “has no comment at this time.”
But Bill Fawley, the Highland County auditor, said he found, after making an inquiry at the request of The Times-Gazette, that the case is still listed with the state auditor as being under “preliminary investigation.” When that concludes, he said, it could result in no further action, or a “special audit one,” which would be an immediate special audit, or a “special audit two,” which would be less serious and folded into the city’s next annual audit.
A second special prosecutor, Julie Korte from the Ohio Ethics Commission, was also appointed by Coss back in January. On Wednesday, Paul Nick, executive director of the ethics commission, said the commission has played a “minimal” role in the Hastings investigation. He said the commission was brought in mainly to assist in clarifying a couple of questions from the probe. He verified that Smith, from the auditor’s office, is leading the investigation.
Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera, whose office is assisting Smith, said this week that the investigation is ongoing, adding that he could not elaborate.
The criminal investigation focused on Hastings became known more than three months ago after a civil case was filed in mid-December by five local residents alleging that Hastings had improperly received a $500 refund from a vacant property fee he had paid.
Just two hours after the civil case was filed, a search warrant was served at the city building in connectino with a criminal investigation, with an affidavit stating that the purpose of the search by sheriff’s deputies was to find evidence related to the $500 refund, as well as evidence related to allegations that Hastings had used a city dumpster to dispose of personal items.
The civil case was ultimately dismissed when it was determined by Probate Judge Kevin Greer to be moot because the alleged misconduct occurred during Hastings’ first term and he could not be found guilty of it outside that term. Hastings began his second term Jan. 1 after being re-elected last November with 59 percent of the vote.
Various warrants have been served since the investigation first came to light, including a late-night search warrant on Feb. 4 at the mayor’s Hillsboro residence which resulted in Hastings’ visiting father-in-law, who was there alone, being ordered to leave the premises while investigators searched for evidence related to residency, and made notations on discovering clothing, appliances and children’s toys.
The affidavit also described a probe into how much water usage had been recorded at various properties where Hastings has lived.
According to an affidavit accompanying that search warrant, investigators said they expected to find evidence of theft in office, tampering with evidence, election falsification and obstructing official business. A forgery charge that was suggested in a previous warrant on Dec. 16 was not included in the warrant executed on Feb. 4.
Boulger, Hastings’ attorney, said Wednesday, “I’m puzzled that there hasn’t been a conclusion to the investigation. There doesn’t seem that much ground to cover. There’s only so much information to digest, with two court-appointed attorneys to digest it.”
Boulger said he was also frustrated by the lack of communication from the Highland County Sheriff’s Office in regard to the case of Lynchburg resident Terry Yankie, who was represented by Boulger in a trial last October. A jury found Yankie not guilty of two counts of receiving stolen property.
Boulger said the sheriff’s office was supposed to be investigating more than $100,000 that was drained from Yankie’s farm accounts. He said that when he and Yankie met with detectives Randy Sanders and Chris Bowen from the sheriff’s office, they seemed to have leads and “could have picked up the trail pretty quickly.” He said a letter he sent to the sheriff’s office in January inquiring about the investigation has gone unanswered.
In that letter, a copy of which he supplied Wednesday to The Times-Gazette, Boulger wrote, “Considering the vigor with which these two detectives have pursued their investigation into the alleged misuse of a city dumpster and the refund of a vacant building registration fee, I assume that their investigation into the theft of virtually all of (Yankie’s) retained crop proceeds is now complete.”
But Barrera and Anneka Collins, the Highland County prosecutor, agreed Wednesday that the lack of progress in the Yankie case is due to Yankie being an uncooperative victim.
Barrera said the sheriff’s office has been trying to work on the case, but Yankie is difficult to reach. “We’ve tried working with Terry, but we can’t get him to cooperate,” said Barrera. He said that since Yankie is the victim in the case, not a defendant, investigators do not need to respond to his attorney.
Collins agreed, saying that sheriff’s deputies have made multiple attempts to contact Yankie to get his assistance in the probe, with no response. She said Yankie is the victim in the case, not Boulger.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.