Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings is scheduled to appear in Highland County Common Pleas Court at 11 a.m. Monday for an arraignment on four felony charges handed down earlier this month by a grand jury.
The court appearance by Hastings is the latest twist in a roller coaster ride that includes more than 4 ½ years of accomplishments and controversies, a state attorney general’s investigation into his residency in 2013 that ended with no action taken, a civil case that was filed last December and dismissed in January, and a seven-month criminal investigation, all sandwiched around his election in 2011 and re-election in 2015.
Hastings is facing charges of election falsification, theft, theft in office and tampering with records. The case will be handled by visiting Judge Patricia Ann Cosgrove from Summit County, who was assigned after Judge Rocky Coss recused himself when the indictments were handed down July 12.
The state’s case against Hastings will be handled by Robert F. Smith, a special prosecutor from the state auditor’s office who was appointed by Coss after Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins recused herself early in the investigation.
Hastings has been a lightning rod for controversy since even before he was first elected in 2011 with 62 percent of the vote. But the blowback against him from some quarters reached its zenith after Hillsboro City Council narrowly approved a plan in 2013 proposed by the mayor to eliminate Hillsboro Fire & Rescue in favor of contracting with the Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District for fire coverage and emergency medical services.
Since he took office, the mayor has often been the target of public criticism and condemnation on social media, both over the fire department plan as well as a sometimes blunt approach that some say shows little concern for political correctness, including a volatile private meeting with Hillsboro Police Department officers in 2013 after one officer filed a citizen’s complaint stating that he had investigated the matter and concluded that Hastings did not live in the city limits.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office investigated the complaint, but concluded there was not enough evidence to demonstrate that Hastings did not live in Hillsboro.
Hastings has also been criticized for social media posts which some say are offensive.
Still, with many residents crediting Hastings for improving city finances, enhancing the appearance of the uptown area and developing better code enforcement measures to clean up dilapidated properties, he was re-elected last November with 59 percent of the vote.
The day after Hastings’ re-election, former Hillsboro Mayor Betty Bishop, who had served as the campaign manager for the mayor’s opponent, Pam Limes, said that voters did not recognize the issues Limes raised against Hastings, “but they will.”
The following month, on Dec. 16, Bishop and four other Hillsboro residents including Craig Jackson, Ariana Jackson, Kirby Ellison and Lisa Leeth, armed with what they said was evidence of malfeasance, filed a complaint in probate court accusing Hastings of receiving – “without lawful authority” – a $500 rebate of a vacant property fee he had paid.
Under the state statute by which the civil case was filed, Hastings, if found guilty, would have been immediately removed from office, with the entire proceeding mandated by law to be completed in just three weeks.
Later, Fred Beery, the city law director, told The Times-Gazette that the idea for the citizen’s suit came from “the law enforcement community.” Two hours after the civil suit was filed, a criminal investigation was launched using the same evidence, with search warrants served at the mayor’s office.
The civil suit was dismissed in January by Judge Kevin Greer based on an Ohio Supreme Court precedent stating that an alleged wrongdoing in one term could not be acted upon by the civil suit in another term.
But the criminal probe stretched for months, and affidavits and search warrants throughout the investigation revealed that investigators were pursuing the circumstances surrounding the $500 rebate, revisiting the residency issue, and looking into accusations that Hastings had used a city dumpster to dispose of debris from personal property.
Investigators also explored charging Hastings with forgery and obstructing official business, according to affidavits, but those items were not among the grand jury’s indictments.
Ohio Auditor Dave Yost, in whose office the special prosecutor works, issued a press release when the indictments were returned, saying, “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.”
After the indictments were handed down, Hastings said, “I am only guilty of trying to represent our citizens without the consent of an established political structure.” Hastings is represented by Chillicothe attorney James Boulger.
Affidavits had indicated that Hastings’ administrative assistant, Debbie Sansone, was also under investigation, but no charges have been filed against her.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.