Since he was first elected in 2011 and took office in 2012, Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings has been a lightning rod for controversy and criticism both at city council meetings and other public forums, as well as on social media and Internet websites.
Criticism has come his way for everything from his roots as a standup comedian to his residency to his social media posts, along with various allegations surrounding his investments in city property.
But nothing caused as much controversy as Hastings’ decision to propose disbanding Hillsboro Fire and Rescue in favor of a contract with the Paint Creek Joint/EMS Fire District. The fire coverage issue led to packed crowds at city council meetings. Eventually, council voted 4-3 in 2013 to adopt Hastings’ proposal.
Hastings’ supporters say his troubles are the result of an activist mayor shaking up an entrenched good-old-boy network in order to bring much-needed change to a long-stagnant city. The mayor’s critics say he plays fast and loose with the rules, pursues initiatives that benefit him personally, and pushes ethical boundaries.
The ongoing criminal investigation against the mayor appears to combine elements of allegations that have been made against Hastings for the past four years by critics ranging from former firefighters, a former Hillsboro police officer, former city officials, political opponents and some individuals in the media and business community.
While he has faced consistent opposition from familiar adversaries, Hastings has often managed to create storms of controversy all by himself. For instance, in late November, not long after his re-election to a second term, he posted a comment on his personal Facebook page that many interpreted as in poor taste at the least, and racist at worst.
Some have suggested it is no coincidence that the civil case filed against Hastings came just two days after a city council meeting featuring outraged residents complaining about the Facebook post, and other posts that had preceded it.
Through the controversies of his first term – the fire coverage issue, questions about his residency, clashes with the police department and other issues – the majority of voters in Hillsboro have stood by the mayor, and he was re-elected comfortably in 2015 with 59 percent of the vote, despite an aggressive campaign against him.
Still, even the election results did not quell the criticism, particularly on social media sites and other websites, where frequent calls for state investigations into Hastings have become regular features.
In fact, an investigation into Hastings’ residency was conducted in 2013 by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, but its finding that there was no evidence to pursue the matter did little to satisfy many of the mayor’s critics, whose calls for more probes seemed to finally gain traction a month after his re-election with the filing of a civil case and the launching of a criminal investigation against the mayor.
The civil case against Hastings was ruled moot and dismissed, but the criminal investigation is into its third month, with no indication that it is wrapping up soon. A special prosecutor, Robert F. Smith from the Ohio auditor’s office, was appointed in January, and another, Julia Korte from the Ohio Ethics Commission was appointed about 10 days later. A request on Wednesday for comment from the auditor’s office brought no response.
According to both the civil complaint filed against Hastings, and affidavits from the criminal investigation that is still ongoing, investigators initially were probing allegations surrounding the issuance of a $500 refund that Hastings had paid for a vacant property, as well as claims that he disposed of personal property in a city dumpster. The latest affidavit filed with a search warrant earlier this month indicated that investigators are focusing on evidence connected to charges of theft in office, tampering with evidence, election falsification and obstructing official business.
With no indication that either the criminal investigation or the longstanding complaints against him and his initiatives by a consistent core of critics are concluding or subsiding anytime soon, the following is a timeline of events in regard to political, governmental, civil and criminal allegations that have plagued Hastings’ tenure, pieced together from news stories, interviews, social media posts, court filings, search warrants and affidavits.
Jan. 2, 2012. Hastings is sworn-in as mayor of Hillsboro by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Terrance O’Donnell, after winning election in November 2011 with 62 percent of the vote against independent candidate John Levo. Hastings, a Republican, was actually sworn-in earlier by Hillsboro Municipal Court Judge David McKenna, but the public ceremony is held on Jan. 2 before a packed Media Room at The Times-Gazette, located in the former city building which Hastings purchased in 2010.
Feb. 15, 2012. Hastings meets with township trustees and Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins to discuss fire coverage. Hastings inherited a 60-day extension of an existing contract with townships after the previous administration was unable to resolve the issue. Hastings pushes for creation of a joint fire district, the township trustees question the fairness of such an arrangement, and the prosecutor warns that without a resolution of some kind, eventually “no one is going to come” when township residents need fire or life squad assistance.
Aug. 16, 2013. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine issues a letter to Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins in which he announces his office found a lack of evidence necessary to demonstrate that Hastings does not reside in Hillsboro. DeWine’s finding was in response to a “citizens complaint” filed by Hillsboro Police Sgt. Ron Priest, who said he had devoted patrol time to investigating whether Hastings lived in the city. Police Chief Nick Thompson was asked whether he had authorized Priest or any other officers to investigate the mayor’s residency. “No, no, no, no,” said Thompson. “I did not. I have not.” Hastings responded, “My first reaction is that I don’t owe him an explanation as to my comings and goings… I see their cruisers out day and night, so it’s surprising they don’t see me. Maybe I don’t sleep. Maybe I hang upside down at night from a tree, like a bat. That’s why my hair stands up. ”
Nov. 12, 2013. After nearly two years of debating the issue, and a previous vote against it, Hillsboro City Council votes 4-3 to adopt Hastings’ plan to contract with the Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District, effectively disbanding Hillsboro Fire and Rescue by the end of the year. Most of those packing council chambers, including many Hillsboro firefighters, family members and supporters, voice displeasure with the decision, but Hastings says, “There were a lot of people who said this was Mayor Hastings’ personal agenda. This was not. This was the citizens of Hillsboro’s agenda, and I just helped get them there.” Eventually, most townships that were covered by Hillsboro join the Paint Creek district.
March 3, 2014. Hillsboro City Council votes again on the Paint Creek contract, passing an emergency resolution on the heels of a letter from a Columbus lawyer representing four Hillsboro residents demanding that the city law director file an injunction prohibiting the city from continuing its contract with Paint Creek. The letter was sent on behalf of local residents Kirby Ellison, Pam Limes, Thomas Stephens and Chris Mathews, all of whom were opponents of the contract with Paint Creek. Council passes the measure as an emergency because state code says that an emergency resolution is not subject to voter referendum.
Aug. 3, 2014. At a Democratic Party picnic, Hillsboro resident and former businesswoman Pam Limes announces she will run for mayor on the Democratic ticket. Even though Limes was among the residents who had earlier signed a letter to the city law director demanding that the city place a referendum on the ballot to let voters decide the fire coverage issue, she tells The Times-Gazette she is not running to bring back Hillsboro Fire and Rescue. She is introduced at the picnic by former Hillsboro Mayor Betty Bishop, who will serve as Limes’ campaign manager.
Nov. 13, 2014. Hastings writes a check for $500 from his business account, Firehouse Square Partners, to the city of Hillsboro for a required vacant property fee in regard to a building he had purchased located at 135 N. High St.
June 2015 (exact date unknown). According to an affidavit filed later, Todd Wilkin, the safety and service director, receives a request from Heather Collins and Debbie Sansone, both administrative assistants in the mayor’s office, to reimburse Hastings the $500. Upon receiving the request, Wilkin later told investigators that he sent an email to Debbie Sansone with the proper procedures outlined in the ordinance for reimbursement to occur.
June 24, 2015. A letter is written on City of Hillsboro stationary addressed to Gary Lewis, city auditor, from Todd Wilkin, safety and service director, and stating, “Please issue a refund of the $500.00 Vacant Building Registration Fee paid in November 2014 for the property at 135 North High Street. The building is no longer considered to be a vacant building.” The letter contains Wilkin’s stamped signature. Questioned later, Wilkin told investigators he did not authorize the letter or the reimbursement.
July 8, 2015. A check from the city for $500 is written to Firehouse Square Partners, with the notation “Refund, vacant bldg. registration fee.”
Oct. 29, 2015. Democratic mayoral candidate Pam Limes adds a post on her campaign Facebook site making a number of claims against Hastings, including one that claims he has “repeatedly used city workers on city time (taxpayer time) to work on private property projects.” Limes concludes, “Should you, the voters, elect me on Nov. 3, one of my first calls will be to the state of Ohio to request an investigation.”
Nov. 3, 2015. Hastings is re-elected mayor of Hillsboro with 59 percent of the vote to 41 percent for Limes.
Nov. 4, 2015. In an election follow-up, The Times-Gazette reports that Betty Bishop, Pam Limes’ campaign manager, says that the issues which Limes brought forward may not be recognized by voters today, “but they will.”
Nov. 9, 2015. At his first council meeting since his re-election, Hastings tells council members, “If city council or anyone else was ever unsure of what your constituents and residents want for this city, this last election should make it clear. What they want is action. Progress. Improvements. They want this administration to keep doing what it has been doing, and for most voters it can’t happen fast enough.”
Nov. 28, 2015. Hastings posts a comment on his personal Facebook page, stating, “When are people going to figure out that we are in a Revolution in this Country. Blacks have all but formally declared war on whites, ideological types are fighting with Planned Parenthood, there’s violence over immigration, Muslim extremism, and our own Government at war with its citizens. This isn’t ‘lone wolf’ stuff. It isn’t a crazy with a gun. It isn’t ‘domestic terrorism,’ these are all skirmishes in a Revolution that’s here. Pick your side and pick your battles, we are about 3 steps away from All bets are off.”
Nov. 30, 2015. Steven Williams, who ran for mayor in the Democratic primary, contacts The Times-Gazette to say that he has heard concerns from the community, both black and white, about Hastings’ Facebook post. Hastings apologizes, saying he had removed the post, and Williams says, “I think the first step was taking it down, and the fact he comes forth like this, absolutely, I accept that.”
Dec. 1, 2015. Channel 9 in Cincinnati airs a story on Hastings’ Facebook post, with Steven Williams quoted as calling for Hastings to resign, although later the online version of the story quotes Williams only as saying, “I think it was way over the top, inappropriate and not something an elected official should be doing.”
Dec. 14, 2015. A large turnout of residents, including many members of Hillsboro’s black community, attend a city council meeting, with many attendees calling on Hastings to resign, and others calling on council to take action. City worker Craig Jackson tells council that the mayor “put me in an unsafe work environment,” and says he encounters racism every day on the job. His wife, Ariana, calls on Hastings to resign. Hastings again apologizes.
Dec. 16, 2015, 1:57 p.m. A civil complaint is filed against Hastings in Highland County Probate Court signed by Craig Jackson, Ariana Jackson, Betty Bishop, Kirby Ellison and Lisa Leeth, accusing Hastings of “malfeasance or misfeasance in office” in regard to what the suit claims was an unauthorized refund of the $500 vacant property fee he had paid in 2014.
Dec. 16, 2015 (time unknown). According to an affidavit, “Sheriff Donnie Barrera and affiant (Sgt. Randy Sanders) received a report from Chief of Police, Todd Whited, that a fraud had occurred with the use of a forged document in the city offices.”
Dec. 16, 2015, 4 p.m. A search warrant is signed authorizing the Highland County Sheriff’s Office to conduct 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 states that investigators are 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 is served by Sheriff Donnie Barrera and investigators Sgt. Randy Sanders and Sgt. Chris Bowen.
Dec. 17, 2015. A “return” document outlining the results of the previous day’s search is filed by Sgt. Randy Sanders with the clerk of courts, itemizing property seized, including copies of various letters, emails and purchase orders, along with a copy of the refund check and the letter with Todd Wilkin’s signature – documents that were already included as supporting evidence in the civil case two hours before the search of the city building was conducted.
Dec. 18, 2015. Hastings retains Chillicothe attorney James Boulger to represent him. Boulger is a well-regarded defense attorney who has won several high-profile cases in Highland County.
Dec. 23, 2015. In an initial hearing on the civil case, Judge Kevin Greer says he is leaning toward ruling the case moot based on precedent that states an official cannot be removed from office outside of the term in which the alleged offense occurred. Hastings will be entering his second term on Jan. 1, 2016. Greer asks attorneys to file briefs arguing their respective sides of the question.
Jan. 4, 2016. In another hearing on the civil case, law director Fred Beery, who is required by law to serve as the attorney for the residents who filed the complaint, argues that Hastings’ actions represent a “continuing violation” that should make them exempt from being considered moot. Hastings’ attorney, James Boulger, argues that the mootness issue applies.
Jan. 4, 2016. Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins tells The Times-Gazette she is asking the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to assign a special prosecutor to the Hastings investigation, in part because the AG’s office is more familiar with such cases, and in part because she is related by marriage to an assistant in the mayor’s office.
Jan. 5, 2016. A misdemeanor charge of attempting to obstruct official business is filed by the Hillsboro Police Department against Hastings in Hillsboro Municipal Court. The filing appears on the court’s website briefly, and then disappears. Later, officials say the charge was dropped, but it will likely be part of the criminal investigation. The municipal court filing is ordered sealed for 90 days.
Jan. 6, 2016. Law Director Fred Beery tells The Times-Gazette that the idea for the citizen civil suit against Hastings came from “the law enforcement community.” If successful, a civil suit would have removed Hastings from office relatively quickly. “I think the fear was there would be retaliation” because of the criminal investigation, says Beery. Hastings responds that he has never retaliated against anyone.
Jan. 6, 2016. Sheriff Donnie Barrera tells The Times-Gazette that Sgt. Randy Sanders has been removed as the investigator of the Hastings case because Sanders is the son of Betty Bishop, who was one of the signers of the civil complaint. Sgt. Chris Bowen becomes the lead investigator for the sheriff’s office.
Jan. 7, 2016, 9 p.m. Sheriff’s deputies show up at Hastings’ farmhouse and serve him with a search warrant authorizing them to confiscate his cell phone. Hastings turns over the phone but refuses to provide the password. He later provides the password when a court order directs him to do so.
Jan. 8, 2016. Judge Kevin Greer dismisses the civil case against Hastings, ruling that the case is moot based on precedent set by the Ohio Supreme Court.
Jan. 8, 2016. Sheriff Donnie Barrera tells The Times-Gazette that the investigation of the mayor will likely take “a couple more weeks.”
Jan. 13, 2016. Highland County Common Pleas Judge Rocky Coss confirms to The Times-Gazette that he will not follow the prosecutor’s recommendation to appoint a special prosecutor from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, and will instead appoint a different special prosecutor.
Jan. 14, 2016. Judge Rocky Coss announces that he has named Robert F. Smith from the Ohio Auditor’s Office to serve as special prosecutor in the Hastings case. Coss does not explain why he decided against Collins’ recommendation to ask the attorney general’s office to step in, saying he cannot discuss the case since he might be presiding over it.
Jan. 19, 2016. Hastings addresses the Hillsboro Rotary Club to discuss projects slated for the coming year, and introduces himself by saying, “What can you say about Drew Hastings that hasn’t already been alleged?”
Jan. 25, 2016. Judge Rocky Coss announces that he is naming a second special prosecutor to the Hastings investigation, Julia Korte with the Ohio Ethics Commission.
Feb. 1, 2016. Hastings issues a press release blasting investigators for serving a subpoena at his daughter’s school. He says that if investigators have a case they should file charges, or “end this witch hunt.” Sheriff Donnie Barrera says he has “no idea” how much longer the investigation will last, saying, “It’s taking a little longer than anyone thought.”
Feb. 4, 2016, 10:15 p.m. State auditor and county sheriff investigators serve a nighttime search warrant at Hastings’ Hillsboro home, ordering the mayor’s visiting father-in-law out of the residence. The search warrant states that the purpose of the search is to find proof of residency, and investigators photograph and itemize underwear, bras, children’s toys, appliances, a bed and other items. An affidavit with the search warrant describes comparisons of water usage at various residences where Hastings has resided.
Feb. 24, 2016. A request from The Times-Gazette to the state auditor’s office for an update on the investigation is unanswered.