One final column on the Drew Hastings soap opera, and then no more opinion columns or editorials here until after the court case is finally and officially resolved. So, as you know, that’s going to mean a lot more columns on Elvis, the NBA and old monster movies. Sorry.
Sometimes I think I’m simply naïve – well, I know I am – but I actually believe in the American judicial concept that anyone charged with a crime is given the presumption of innocence unless and until proven guilty.
And yet, a rumor was circulating that there was an effort to convince city council members to pass a “no confidence” vote against Drew or take some other immediate proactive step before the case even goes to trial. Perhaps some think council should carry out sentencing, too. Thankfully, council president Lee Koogler told me Monday that was not true, although naturally he and other council members have discussed the case since indictments were issued.
Like many of you, ever since the investigation began and the details started to emerge, I’ve heard story after story about similar – let’s say alleged “infractions” – by others in various places and offices over the years that never saw the light of day. But even if true, that doesn’t excuse it if it happened in this case, right? The others were just lucky. That’s probably right. They were lucky. Drew isn’t being singled out. He just got unlucky. Right after his re-election. Darn coincidences.
Someone suggested to me last week that defending Drew could “taint” the jury pool, which is funny. I’ve never defended Drew on the charges against him – well, except on the residency issue, which I would do a million times over. I’ve said many times that I have no idea of his innocence or guilt on the rest of it.
My criticism has been in regard to some of the tactics by the state auditor’s office during this investigation, and the multi-year vendetta against the mayor in a way that it’s safe to say we have never witnessed against any local elected official in modern history. Then again, he’s not really local, is he, which is part of the problem.
Are you saying the state is part of the conspiracy, Gary? In fact, there is no conspiracy. A conspiracy indicates something secret. No, the effort to bring down Drew has been about as open and public as it can be.
As for the state, the state auditor’s office is merely carrying out the duty that was handed to it, as it does with other cases that it informs people about daily with breathless press releases touting its tough-on-corruption crusade, as the next gubernatorial election looms. What we did not see issued in this case was a press release on all the allegations that were investigated but not charged, which were several. Nevertheless, the state was not connected to the beginning of the case, and it is the beginning that is of the most interest.
To worry that the jury pool in Highland County might be “tainted” in Drew’s favor is a remarkable complaint. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it is the defense that claims they can’t get a fair trial because of all the negative publicity about a case, so the defense asks for a change of venue. To worry that there might be too many local residents unwilling to convict Drew is perhaps to acknowledge not that the jury pool is “tainted,” but instead that people here have pretty good common sense.
Besides, the better argument is that Drew has been the victim of negative publicity for so many years that perhaps he should be the one worrying about a fair trial here. I could never approach writing the number of words necessary to counter all the accusations and insinuations presented elsewhere, ranging from high crimes to low crimes to guilt-by-association to “he’s not a nice guy” that have been spewed elsewhere over the last five years.
Amplified by the fire department controversy, his challenges to other local sacred cows, a police officer “citizen complaint” over his residency, his own admittedly bull-in-a-china-shop approach – and even armed with all that, the inability to defeat him last November – it was apparently time to get serious, starting with a “citizen complaint” in probate court to immediately remove him from office, which, by mere coincidence of course, corresponded with the launching of the criminal investigation using the same evidence.
Someone told me recently that they had faith in our justice system and our law enforcement officials. I have faith in those institutions, but not complete faith. The only thing I have complete faith in is God. All of our manmade institutions are populated and operated by human beings, so they are capable of both integrity and honesty, and capable of imperfection, as are we all.
But most of them try to do the best they can. Our justice system is the only system we have, and probably the best one man is capable of devising. So we have to abide by it and respect its judgment. As noted in a story we ran last week, Judge Patricia Ann Cosgrove, who has been assigned this case, has many years of service on the bench under a variety of circumstances. Godspeed and sound wisdom to her in this case.
But make no mistake, we find ourselves where we are now not really because of the evidence or the alleged wrongdoing, even if there has been wrongdoing and even if there is evidence to support it. This case, regardless of its merits, is primarily serving as a vehicle to achieve a result that has been long sought from some quarters.
There has been an open, unrelenting effort not to rest until something was found to justify legally removing Drew Hastings from office, which, frankly, could likely be done to a lot of people other than Drew if a similar devoted effort was made. And that’s the problem.
The reason I’m making a point to say that this is my last opinion column on this subject until the case is finished is so I will hold myself to it. When I am tempted to weigh in further, which I will be, I will remind myself that I promised in print that I wouldn’t. I don’t want to be either praising or criticizing decision by decision or development by development once the arraignment happens (Aug. 1) and the case moves along from there.
And when it’s over, I’ll try to remember to respect the only system we have, no matter how this case ends. But I’ll never respect – nor should anyone else – how this case began, which wasn’t really last December. It began a long, long time ago, in ways that should make no one proud.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.