Since the criminal investigation into Mayor Drew Hastings became public on Dec. 16, I have tried to remain open to the notion that there might be real cause for concern.
I have trusted that law enforcement agencies wouldn’t chase allegations of wrongdoing unless they really believed the evidence justified it. I have told myself that neither the police nor the sheriff’s office nor the state would allow themselves to become pawns or partners in a political witch hunt.
From the start, it was not always easy to believe that, especially when a civil complaint was filed the very same day against the mayor by five of his political critics using the same evidence that was used by law enforcement to pursue criminal charges. But maybe that was a coincidence, I told myself.
Still, to this day, I’m not ready to defend or accuse the mayor in regard to some of the allegations against him. Only time will tell, and especially only after he finally has an opportunity to defend himself against the charges, if they come.
But what happened over the last week or two makes it difficult to maintain the belief that this investigation has not devolved into exactly the kind of political witch hunt the mayor has always claimed. First, there was the visit to the school of the mayor’s daughter to search her records. Then a similar visit happened at the workplace of the mayor’s wife, which was not publicized, but which happened. Then, finally, something happened Thursday night that substantially shook my confidence in the integrity of this investigation.
Drew Hastings’ father-in-law, Deacon Tim Blanchard – so-called because he is an ordained deacon in the Catholic Diocese of Peoria, Ill. – came into town on Thursday, Feb. 4, to visit his daughter and her family for the weekend.
After visiting a while on Thursday, the deacon was tired from his seven-and-a-half hour drive, and Drew and Taryn invited him to stay at their residence in Hillsboro, located in the 100 block of Beech Street just off North High Street in the uptown area, while they stayed at their farmhouse on Caleb Hill Road near New Market. The Hastings family headed out around 7 or so, and Deacon Blanchard settled in for the evening at the Beech Street residence.
He soon drifted off to sleep on the couch when suddenly, at about 10:15 p.m. or so, his peaceful evening was interrupted by a loud pounding on the door, accompanied by shouts ordering him to open up. He could see others peeking in at him through the windows, he told me later.
The voices outside shouted that they were with the Highland County Sheriff’s Office and had a search warrant. But Deacon Blanchard didn’t know the Highland County Sheriff’s Office and didn’t know if it was legitimate. Understandably frightened, he picked up the phone and called 911. The people outside were ordering him to hang up the phone and open the door.
Deacon Blanchard told me that the pounding on the door was getting more aggressive and he was afraid they would break it down. So he hung up, but then he Googled the Hillsboro Police Department and called HPD, where a supervisor told him that it probably was the sheriff’s office serving a warrant, and HPD had no jurisdiction over it.
Finally, he opened the door, where, he recalls, three uniformed officers and two in plain clothes were waiting in the dark night. They demanded to know who he was. He explained that he was Drew Hastings’ father-in-law.
With that, they ordered him out. He explained that he was from out of town and had nowhere to go. He didn’t want to bother Taryn because she had been sick. Too bad, get lost, they said.
Shaken, Deacon Blanchard went to his truck and sat there. He didn’t want to call Drew or Taryn and bother them. So, feeling chest pains, he prayed for a while to calm himself down. Finally, he decided he had to call Drew.
Toys and underwear
The mayor came to the residence, where a uniformed officer wearing a ski mask was standing outside guarding the door. He refused to let Drew enter. Someone poked their head out the door to see what the commotion was all about, and finally identified himself as an investigator from the state auditor’s office. He and the other investigators were inside, apparently photographing and videotaping the contents of the house.
Someone gave the mayor a copy of the search warrant and the affidavit accompanying it. On Friday, I asked Drew for a copy.
What were these lawmen looking for that was so urgent, so imperative that they threw a man out of the house late on this cold Thursday night so they could barge in and conduct a search? A murder weapon? Drugs? Evidence of rape, or the building of a dirty bomb?
No. They were looking for underwear, bras and toilets. Seriously. They wanted to see how many clothes were in the drawers and closets, how many appliances there were, how many children’s toys, and other such evidence to use against this desperate criminal, our mayor. I kid you not.
The search warrant stated that the purpose of the search would be to “photograph, video, view and document property, open, view, photograph any appliances, any dressers, any closets, any cabinets, any other locations that documents could be stored, view any appliance capable of holding water with purpose to record capabilities of said appliances, to seize and view any documents showing proof of residency.” More on the water and residency thing shortly.
From an evidence receipt they left behind, the investigators took nothing, but they photographed and observed a number of items, which they meticulously documented to include, among other similarly innocuous findings:
• TV, 50 inch.
• Gas range.
• Full bed (it’s actually a queen bed, according to the mayor).
• Two sofas and two chairs.
• Four pair men’s underwear (they did not note whether boxers or briefs).
• Two ladies bras.
• Three pair ladies underwear.
• Child toys.
And so on. Oh, and if you were wondering what the Hastings family uses to do their business in the bathroom – well, if you weren’t, the investigators sure were – it’s a Mansfield toilet, model number 31951.28. They also documented one pair of boots and one pair of slippers, along with adding, “no dress shoes (his).” Maybe the mayor was wearing his dress shoes, which apparently looked bad for him since they weren’t there to be found.
The mayor said later that he found it interesting that they didn’t document things like a stack of bills and other mail addressed to him at the Beech Street residence, and a dozen roses he had sent with a card to his wife at that address and which were sitting in plain sight, not to mention fresh food in the refrigerator, etc.
The search warrant states that investigators believed they would find evidence of “election falsification” along with “theft in office,” tampering with evidence,” and “obstructing official business.” (Interestingly, an initial charge of “forgery” is no longer on the list contained in Thursday’s search warrant.)
Investigators said they were likely to find evidence of all these things if they searched the mayor’s Hillsboro home by “measuring the interior of the property, documenting the volume of water used by the toilet, (and) inspecting the property for furnishings appropriate for a family of 3 including a daughter under the age of 10…”
Because, you see, the two-month probe of the mayor of Hillsboro, Ohio, has apparently devolved to the point that it is now focused on this burning question: Where does the Hastings family sleep at night?
The search warrant and affidavit given to the mayor Thursday night make it abundantly clear that this is now the focus of the big investigation. Not only are investigators leaving no stone unturned, they are leaving no water jug unfilled. The affidavit given to the mayor along with the search warrant shows that countless hours of investigatory effort have been devoted to, believe it or not, measuring how much water has been used at various properties resided in or owned by Drew Hastings. I could not make this up.
Why are they comparing water usage? Because, apparently, comparing water usage at one property versus another property will determine where the Hastings family spends most of its time, and if they can only prove that more gallons of water were used at this residence than that residence, well, they can convict Drew Hastings of “election falsification” – that is now one of the criminal offenses included in the latest search warrant – and kick this notorious criminal out of office.
Also included in the “evidence” gathered by investigators, according to the affidavit, is the infamous unauthorized investigation conducted in 2013 by a now-former Hillsboro police officer, who, as you’ll recall, took it upon himself to probe the mayor’s residency and concluded in a “citizen’s complaint” that no matter how hard he looked, he could seldom find evidence of the mayor’s Ford F150 pickup truck anywhere in town after dark. Other officers had looked too, he added, with no luck.
When the mayor complained last week about investigators subpoenaing records from his stepdaughter’s school – St. Mary Catholic School in Hillsboro – many wondered what they could possibly hope to find there. The answer is simple – they wanted to see what was listed as the home address for young Willow. They also sought records from Taryn’s place of employment, apparently looking for the same information.
Some have suggested it wasn’t the investigators who embarrassed young Willow at her school, that Drew did that himself by making it a public issue. The fact is, right after investigators were there, one of Willow’s classmates said to her, “I heard that the police were here and Drew’s not allowed to pick you up from school anymore.”
The classmate’s information was not quite right, of course, but that’s how rumors get twisted. St. Mary Catholic School is not a physically sprawling district like Hillsboro City Schools. It’s a small, compact little facility, and word spreads fast when law enforcement shows up. Every parent in the world can relate to Drew’s sense of outrage, and why he publicly called for an end to the madness. Unfortunately, the madness only got worse.
Drew Hastings is not accused of murder, rape or drug dealing. He’s accused of improperly receiving a rebate of a $500 vacant property fee, of using a city dumpster for personal items, and now, apparently, of not spending enough time at one residence he owns compared to another residence he owns. Maybe that’s a huge crime, I don’t know. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t care less where he sleeps at night, or where he and his family use more water brushing their teeth, taking a shower, or flushing the toilet, and I wouldn’t care whether it was Drew Hastings, Dick Zink or Betty Bishop.
We could probably identify and deport all the illegal immigrants in America if we explored their residency using the toilet and water usage method of detection. But only the mayor of Hillsboro gets that honor.
Maybe you care about where the mayor sleeps at night. But even if you think it’s important, do investigators have to probe his residency by using dead-of-night tactics that would seem right at home in 1930s and ‘40s Germany?
Let’s reflect again for a moment on what happened Thursday night in our city. A visitor drove in from Illinois to Hillsboro to visit his daughter and her family. After he was settled in for the evening and had dozed off, law enforcement officers pounded on his door, demanded to know who he was, then threw him out of the house and into the night — all so they could take pictures of clothing, furniture, appliances and children’s toys at a residence owned by the duly elected mayor of Hillsboro.
If it really had to be done, isn’t this something that could have been done at 2 in the afternoon? Apparently not, because the search warrant specifically states that “there is urgent necessity for a nighttime search.” It’s hardly the first time during this probe that investigators have shown up late at night to serve their warrants, as though it was the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Urgent necessity for a nighttime search? Is this politics? Is it a witch hunt? I don’t know, but if you think it’s a coincidence that this all started almost immediately after Drew Hastings was re-elected as mayor in November, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like you to consider. If it goes that far, James Boulger, the mayor’s attorney, will surely have a field day recounting for a jury the circumstances and methods of this investigation from start to finish.
Who’s in charge?
I don’t know if the rest of the investigation against the mayor of Hillsboro has been so fruitless that they feel they have no choice but to investigate where he has lived, or lives now, or where he sleeps at night, in town or on the farm. What I do know for a fact is that wherever he lives, he most definitely lives in America, where these kinds of tactics have no place happening for these kinds of allegations. But they are happening, and it’s outrageous.
The people of Hillsboro have been well aware that Drew Hastings first bought a farm when he moved here, that he still owns the farm and the farmhouse, and that he also owns a number of properties in Hillsboro, one of which is a residence. In fact, no one has invested more in Hillsboro in the last seven or eight years than Drew Hastings.
Whether he spends more nighttime hours at his Hillsboro residence or at his farmhouse is of little concern to most people, except for the obsessively engrossed parties who are still spotted driving by his house in the country to spy on whether he’s there.
Voters have been well aware of his living arrangements since he moved here – in no small part thanks to the constant harping on it by a handful of constant critics – and they elected him mayor in 2011 and re-elected him in 2015, by very similar healthy margins. Some people can’t stand that fact, and they have harped on it along with other claims until they finally convinced law enforcement to carry their water – in this case, all the way to the toilet.
Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office looked into the mayor’s residency issue in 2013 based on the HPD officer’s citizen complaint, and DeWine determined there was no evidence to do anything with it. Then again, he didn’t inspect the mayor’s toilet. My guess is, Mike DeWine has better things to do, to his credit.
I have to believe – I want to believe – that the Highland County Sheriff’s Office is no longer leading this investigation, that it has been taken over by the office of State Auditor Dave Yost and the special prosecutor who was appointed from Yost’s office. I don’t know for sure, because investigating agencies won’t comment on ongoing investigations.
But I have to believe that our sheriff’s office is now only playing a supporting role because that’s what it has to do, and that it would not engage in these tactics when it comes to investigating these kinds of allegations. In fact, Deacon Blanchard said that one of the sheriff’s deputies who was on hand Thursday night indicated quietly that he really didn’t want to be there. Good for him.
Dave Yost has worked hard to convince the public that the state auditor’s office is some sort of tough-on-corruption law enforcement agency, rather than a typically bland and boring auditor’s office. There’s a governor’s race coming up in a couple of years, and John Kasich is term limited. Musical chairs time is approaching fast.
Deacon Blanchard told me he plans to consult with his attorney when he gets back to Illinois. Good luck. There is usually little recourse against the state and the badge.
When I talked with the deacon on Sunday afternoon, he told me that he convinced Drew to come to church Sunday morning with Taryn, Willow and him. Drew told me later that during the service, he was praying “in whatever fashion I know how,” when suddenly he felt a tap on his shoulder.
No, it wasn’t an angel or a devil. But when he turned around, he saw someone who is well known here, and not necessarily seen as an ally of the mayor’s. The person said to him, “Hang in there. This is the biggest witch hunt I’ve ever seen.” Drew said that comment both surprised him, coming from the source that it came, and also made his day.
At the beginning, I resisted the notion that this whole thing started as a political witch hunt. It sure seems to be ending that way.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.