Updated with assignment of new judge.
A Highland County grand jury on Tuesday indicted Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings on four felony counts related to election falsification, theft, theft in office and tampering with records.
Hastings was served with a notice of the indictments while he was having lunch at Bob Evans in Hillsboro. An arraignment is scheduled for 9 a.m. July 27 in Highland County Common Pleas Court. Later, Hastings said his only crime was running up against “an established political structure.”
Meanwhile, Judge Rocky Coss filed an order Tuesday afternoon recusing himself from the case and requesting the assignment of a visiting judge. The Ohio Supreme Court acted quickly, announcing the assignment of Patricia Ann Cosgrove, a retired judge of the Summit County Common Pleas Court.
Election falsification and theft are fifth-degree felonies. Theft in office is a fourth-degree felony. The most serious charge is tampering with records, a third-degree felony.
The indictments follow a seven-month investigation into allegations ranging from forgery to obstructing official business to theft in office based on the use of a city dumpster. The indictments that were finally handed down Tuesday were in line with details that emerged from various affidavits and search warrants reported in recent months by The Times-Gazette after the probe began last December.
Hastings’ administrative assistant, Debbie Sansone, was also known to be under investigation, but so far no indictments have been released in regard to her.
When grand jury indictments were released Tuesday as usual to The Times-Gazette following the grand jury meeting, Hastings was not listed among them.
But while he was having lunch at Bob Evans at around 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, a sheriff’s deputy asked him to step outside, presented him with the notice of indictments, and told him to appear at the Highland County Justice Center before his arraignment on July 27 to be fingerprinted and photographed, the mayor said later.
The investigation against Hastings was led by a special prosecutor, Robert F. Smith, from the office of Ohio Auditor Dave Yost. Shortly after Hastings was served with the indictments, Yost issued a statement Tuesday afternoon, directly addressing the length of the probe against the mayor.
Yost said, “Mr. Hastings has long complained about the length of time a careful, proper investigation takes. That investigation is now complete, and the evidence will be made public appropriately, in a court of law. I am confident the jury of his peers will find that evidence amounts to proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The statement from Yost said that the charges “involve allegedly listing a false address on his Declaration of Candidacy form; for claiming a city refund of $500 for a vacant building he owned and for altering documents related to the refund, and; for instructing a contractor to use city dumpsters to dispose of construction debris.”
Affidavits throughout the case indicated Hastings was also being investigated for forgery and obstructing official business, but he was not indicted on those charges.
Hastings said Tuesday, “I am only guilty of trying to represent our citizens without the consent of an established political structure.”
Hastings’ attorney, Jim Boulger of Chillicothe, said Tuesday he had received a copy of the indictments, but “I’ll know a lot more after discovery, which I’m sure they’ll deliver promptly” after the arraignment. “At this point I can only speculate what underlies the counts,” he said.
Hastings, a nationally-known standup comedian, moved to a farm he purchased near Hillsboro about a decade ago, and after becoming involved in the city through purchasing and renovating old properties he decided to run for mayor in 2011. He was elected with 62 percent of the vote.
During his first term, he proposed a controversial measure to disband Hillsboro’s longtime fire department and replace it with coverage from the Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District through a contract arrangement. That plan was eventually approved by city council in September 2013 by a 4-3 vote after several boisterous and contentious council meetings, and ill will continues today among some residents over the decision.
Almost since the day he took office, Hastings has been the target of a vocal band of opponents who have accused him of conflicts of interest and a brash style that some find offensive.
In 2013, a then-Hillsboro police officer filed a “citizen’s complaint” against Hastings, claiming the mayor was not a resident of Hillsboro and acknowledging he had spent patrol time attempting to locate the mayor’s vehicle during the nighttime hours. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office concluded there was a lack of evidence showing Hastings was not a resident.
Last December, Hastings apologized for a Facebook post after some local residents, many of them African-American, came to a city council meeting and said the post, and others before it, were of a racist nature.
But his supporters say Hastings has brought needed changes to the city, both by improving city finances and by instituting a number of legislative and administrative initiatives that have resulted in a cleaner and more attractive city, particularly the downtown business district.
Hastings was re-elected last November with nearly 60 percent of the vote. But his victory celebration didn’t last long.
In December, five Hillsboro citizens signed a civil complaint accusing him of malfeasance over the rebate of a $500 vacant property fee Hastings had paid. About two hours later, the separate criminal investigation was launched, with sheriff’s officials serving search warrants at the Hillsboro city building.
The $500 rebate issue stems from an authorization for the refund containing the stamped signature of Todd Wilkin, the city safety and service director. Wilkin later told investigators he did not authorize the refund or authorize his signature to be used.
The civil case was eventually dismissed by Judge Kevin Greer because of an Ohio Supreme Court decision that ruled that alleged malfeasance in one term could not be prosecuted in another term.
But the timing of the civil case – brought by individuals who have publicly opposed the mayor on various issues – led to accusations that the simultaneous launch of the criminal investigation was politically driven.
Fred Beery, the city law director who, by law, represented the citizens in the suit, at one point told The Times-Gazette that the idea for the civil suit came from “the law enforcement community.” Hastings initially called the investigation a “witch hunt.”
The criminal investigation into the mayor took many twists and turns since its beginning.
• A search warrant was issued on Dec. 16 authorizing a search of the Hillsboro city building to include “any records, documents, papers or data related to city of Hillsboro personnel, equipment or property” and to seize, open or view “any data, photos or other information” stored in computers or other data storage devices. An affidavit with the warrant stated that investigators were seeking evidence related to the $500 rebate, along with evidence that Hastings disposed of personal items in a city dumpster, citing city workers as witnesses. The warrant was served by Sheriff Donnie Barrera and investigators Sgt. Randy Sanders and Sgt. Chris Bowen. Property seized included copies of various letters, emails and purchase orders, along with a copy of the refund check and the letter with Wilkin’s signature – documents that were also included as supporting evidence in the civil case two hours before the search of the city building was conducted.
• In early January, Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins said she was asking the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to assign a special prosecutor to the Hastings investigation. But about 10 days later, Judge Coss announced that he had instead named Robert F. Smith from the Ohio Auditor’s Office to serve as special prosecutor in the Hastings case. (The press release issued Tuesday by Yost incorrectly said Smith had been appointed at Collins’ request.)
• A misdemeanor charge of attempting to obstruct official business was filed in early January by the Hillsboro Police Department against Hastings in Hillsboro Municipal Court. The filing appeared on the court’s website briefly, and then disappeared. Later, officials said the charge was dropped, but it would likely be part of the criminal investigation.
• On Jan. 6, Sheriff Donnie Barrera told The Times-Gazette that Sgt. Randy Sanders had been removed as the investigator of the Hastings case because Sanders is the son of former mayor Betty Bishop, who was one of the signers of the civil complaint. Sgt. Chris Bowen became the lead investigator for the sheriff’s office, although investigators from the state auditor’s office took the lead in the case.
• On Jan. 7, sheriff’s deputies showed up at Hastings’ farmhouse around 9 p.m. and served him with a search warrant authorizing them to confiscate his cell phone.
• On Feb. 1, Hastings issued a press release blasting investigators for serving a subpoena at his daughter’s school. He said that if investigators had a case, they should file charges or “end this witch hunt.”
• On Feb. 4 sometime after 10 p.m., state auditor and county sheriff investigators served a nighttime search warrant at Hastings’ Hillsboro home, ordering the mayor’s visiting father-in-law to leave the residence. The search warrant stated that the purpose of the search was to find proof of residency, and investigators photographed and itemized underwear, bras, children’s toys, appliances, a bed and other items. An affidavit with the search warrant described comparisons of water usage at various residences where Hastings said he had resided.
• In April, investigators served a warrant at the residence of Debbie Sansone and her husband, Rick, confiscating personal computers, flash drives and other items.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.