Editor’s note: Associated Press reporter Dan Sewell examined the investigation of Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings for a story that moved this weekend on the AP wire.
By Dan Sewell
Having your wife’s and your underwear examined and toilet usage analyzed might sound like something for veteran standup comedian Drew Hastings’ routine. But while it sometimes seems like “a ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch,” he says, Hastings is finding it increasingly difficult to see humor in the continuing investigations into his actions as a small-city Ohio mayor.
“They are definitely troubling, to put it mildly,” said Hastings, whose language is rarely mild. “I am flabbergasted as to what the hell could have incited this type of witch hunt, political targeting, whatever you want to call it. … I just know I’ve been a real lightning rod.”
Not much is being said officially about the probes by a court-appointed special prosecutor from the Ohio auditor’s office, with a state ethics investigator and the Highland County sheriff’s office. Among the allegations are improper personal use of Hillsboro city trash bins, forgery involving a $500 vacant building fee refund and election falsification concerning residency in the city of some 6,600, where he has a downtown apartment. Hastings has called them politically motivated and a “gross waste of taxpayers’ time and money.”
After buying a small farm 60 miles east of Cincinnati a decade ago for a quiet refuge from life on the road, Hastings made his foray into politics when he became a downtown property owner. Like a scaled-down version of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Hastings ran in 2011 as an anti-establishment Republican ready to shake things up, scoffing at political correctness. He declared that “America is going to hell in a handbasket” but said he could help revitalize Hillsboro.
He won with 62 percent of the vote.
Hastings — a frequent guest on radio’s syndicated “Bob & Tom Show” who appeared on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show” and Comedy Central — has been praised by The (Hillsboro) Times-Gazette for improving the city’s finances and for downtown progress.
But others see a heavy-handed, self-serving mayoral style. Highland County Press publisher Rory Ryan described a “sordid history of city government the past four years” in a December column. After Hastings won re-election last November with 59 percent of the vote, former Mayor Betty Bishop, campaign manager for his opponent, told The Times-Gazette that voters might not have yet recognized the issues with Hastings, “but they will.”
“There are a lot of strongly held opinions in Hillsboro on a lot of things, including the mayor,” said Laura Curliss, a former Hillsboro deputy law director and now a Yellow Springs attorney. She thinks the probes dating to December have gone on too long, appearing to be in search of “anything (to) nail the guy on.”
Hastings’ bluntness can go too far for some. Asked publicly about marijuana use in his past, he replied: “I did everything but gargle the bong water.” He apologized to upset black residents after a Facebook post last year that said “blacks have all but formally declared war on whites.”
The first investigation came three years ago, when Ohio’s attorney general responded to a challenge on whether Hastings was a city resident, concluding there was no cause for action. A lawsuit alleging official misconduct was filed in December, but a judge dismissed it as moot because allegations stemmed from Hastings’ first term. Another judge appointed special prosecutors in January.
A spokeswoman for the auditor’s office said the state office wouldn’t discuss its work but specified there was no “special audit” underway. Carrie Bartunek declined to elaborate, but a special audit would be triggered by fraud or misuse of funds.
At 6-foot-6, the spiky-haired Hastings doesn’t get very far around town without being greeted by constituents.
Shirley Moore called out “Drew!” as he strode back to his office after having a fried baloney sandwich on pretzel roll at a downtown restaurant. She asked if he had time to perform a marriage for her daughter and son-in-law-to-be, home from military service. He readily agreed.
She, like many residents, has been wondering where it’s all headed.
“I don’t know what to think,” said Moore, shaking her head. “But I don’t like the way they did him on that search of his home, going there at night.”
She referred to a late-night search of Hastings’ downtown apartment in February by investigators who, records indicated, took photographs and inventoried clothing including bras and underpants, children’s toys and furniture and have studied his water usage records in a revisit of the residency issue. Hastings said the scene made him wonder if “they were shooting a porn film.”
Hastings, 62, pledges to persevere, citing “a combination of spite and determination and a lot of support out there.”
He adds that he now has a name for a coffeehouse he plans to open downtown: “Insufficient Grounds.”
Follow Dan Sewell at http://twitter.com/dansewell