A deputy legal counsel with the Ohio State Auditor’s Office was appointed Thursday to handle any prosecution that arises from an ongoing investigation looking into allegations against Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings.
The appointment was made by Highland County Common Pleas Judge Rocky Coss.
Earlier this month, Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins told The Times-Gazette that she had asked the state attorney general’s office to handle the case. She said the attorney general’s office was proficient in handling cases involving elected officials.
But The Times-Gazette reported online Wednesday and in its Thursday print edition that Coss confirmed he did not approve Collins’ motion for the attorney general’s office to step in. He said the appointment of a special prosecutor is ultimately a decision for the court.
As promised, Coss made the appointment Thursday, filing an entry naming Robert F. Smith, deputy legal counsel for the state auditor. Coss said in an email, “Due to the Code of Judicial Conduct, since this involves a potential case that could come before me as Judge, I cannot comment on the order.”
According to various news reports, Smith is part of the auditor’s Public Integrity Assurance Team. He has recently been part of an investigation into allegations of embezzlement against Bridget Kuhn, the wife of the new mayor of Lancaster. Ohio. Kuhn is accused of embezzling “about $350,000 from her employer, a veterans post and a nonprofit group to support a gambling addiction that drew her to casinos in Ohio and Las Vegas hundreds of times,” according to the Columbus Dispatch.
According to Smith’s Linked-In page, he authored Ohio’s computer crime statutes, wiretap statutes and money laundering statutes. He “specialized in prosecuting cases under Ohio’s RICO statutes, money laundering statutes, securities statutes and also white collar prosecutions.” The page said he is “currently specializing in insurance defense and bad faith litigation, and investigating insurance claims, with an emphasis on incendiary fires.”
The page also says Smith previously worked for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office for 14 years, from 1988-2002.
According to the website of Dave Yost, the state auditor, the Public Integrity Assurance Team “brings together the former Special Audit Section, Special Investigations Unit and portions of the Auditor of State’s legal staff as one team with one mission.” The site adds, “In cases where local officials have conflicts that make them unable to conduct investigations, the Public Integrity Assurance Team brings independence.”
In appointing Smith, Coss wrote, “The Court has received an application filed by the Highland County Prosecuting Attorney for appointment of a Special Prosecuting Attorney in regard to the investigation and possible prosecution of alleged criminal offenses involving matters relating to Drew Hastings, Mayor of the City of Hillsboro. After due consideration of the application, the Court finds it to be well taken.
Coss said Smith will handle the “investigation and any possible prosecution of any criminal cases regarding matters involving Drew Hastings as well as other persons who may be alleged to have committed criminal offenses in connection with those matters for which this appointment has been made.”
When she said she was asking the attorney general’s office to step in, Collins said that in addition to that office’s expertise, she was also stepping beside because she is related by marriage to an assistant in the mayor’s office.
The Highland County Sheriff’s Office is conducting an investigation into allegations involving the refund of a $500 vacant building fee that Hastings received, along with claims by city workers that Hastings has used city dumpsters to dispose of items from his personal properties. Several sources have said other allegations are also being probed.
A civil suit filed against Hastings by five Hillsboro residents in regard to the $500 refund was dismissed last Friday by Judge Kevin Greer in Highland County Probate Court.
In an odd occurrence, a misdemeanor charge of attempting to obstruct official business was filed last week by the Hillsboro Police Department in Hillsboro Municipal Court against Hastings. The Times-Gazette saw the filing when it appeared for a brief time on the court’s website, but it was soon removed. Officials asked that the matter not be immediately reported, a request to which The Times-Gazette agreed at the time.
The charge was filed under section 2921.31 of Ohio Revised Code, which states, “No person, without privilege to do so and with purpose to prevent, obstruct, or delay the performance by a public official of any authorized act within the public official’s official capacity, shall do any act that hampers or impedes a public official in the performance of the public official’s lawful duties.”
A preliminary hearing on the charge was originally scheduled, but officials said later that the case was being dismissed and would likely be folded into the ongoing criminal investigation being conducted by the Highland County Sheriff’s Office. The basis for the charge is not known. Hillsboro Law Director Fred Beery said that Judge David McKenna had placed a 90-day seal on the case, so he was not permitted to discuss it.
There were additional reports of more search warrants being served in connection with the criminal investigation, including another one last Friday at the city administration building.
Hastings has called the allegations against him “ludicrous,” and said he looks forward to “refuting” the claims. He is represented by Chillicothe attorney James Boulger.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.