The Hilliard Division of Police and the Ohio Auditor of State are investigating the alleged theft of an unspecified amount of money from Hilliard's two pools facilities over a number of years.
Police Chief Bobby Fisher said at a press conference this afternoon it likely would take "several months" to conclude an investigation into money that believed missing over the span of "several years."
A preliminary investigation by Hilliard police indicates not all cash proceeds from the Hilliard Family Aquatic Center and the Hilliard East Municipal Pool were accounted for in deposits made by Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department staff members during an unspecified period of time, said Doug Francis, Hilliard's director of communications and information technology.
He said at least one employee is suspected in connection to the missing funds but no charges have been filed.
Francis said city officials could not identify anyone under investigation because the subject has not been charged but he confirmed one recent resignation from the recreation and parks department.
That person was deputy director Heather Ernst, whose resignation letter obtained from the city was dated Nov. 1 and cites her health as a reason for her departure.
Ernst also said via email Nov. 21 that she resigned “to focus on my health.”
“It is what I had to do to fight this cancer," she said.
Ernst's resignation letter addresses human-resources director Julia Baxter and refers to stress she said she experienced prior to the investigation being made public, almost three weeks after her resignation.
It also references the lack of a policy for her department depositing money from the pools into a bank on a daily basis. The letter said the concerns went back to the summer of 2015 but she was not told of them until Oct. 16.
Her letter also stated many people would have had access to the money before it reached her:
"It was conveyed to me on October 16, 2017 that concerns arose back in 2015 about pool deposits not being picked up from the pools and dropped off at the bank every day during the summer. 2015! For the life of me, I cannot understand why no policy was ever established (verbal or in writing), no attempt to notify anyone in the department about preferred administrative best practice, or simply picking up the phone to have a conversation about changes that need to be made. Instead, here we are in 2017, imaginations have run wild, and all involved now have a major problem to sort out. I would think that given I was Deputy Director and had worked hard to establish open lines of communications with colleagues (especially in the finance department), this could have been handled so much differently and never should have gotten to this point. Instead, antiquated equipment continued to be used year after year, now causing assumptions to be made instead of being reasonable based on data and facts. There were MANY people who had hands on money (and access to money) at the pools before it ever got to me. ... I sincerely hope that steps will be taken before next summer to make sure that no other employee has to go through what I am going through. ... This should have been done a long time ago. No one from the finance department looked at it to determine if it was the right way to be doing things. Not one time in the past three years. They didn't visit either facility or discuss it with anyone. The process that we used was put in place by Michelle Kelly-Underwood and was done as directed."
Kelly-Underwood is a former Hilliard finance director.
“The division of police cannot identify who is the subject within an investigation as long as the suspect is uncharged,” Francis said. “We cannot confirm that (Ernst) is a suspect in this investigation.”
The money in question, Francis said, is related to cash received for daily admission and other transactions related to memberships.
He said the pools receive cash on a daily basis during the season, including cash for concessions and daily admission to the pool for patrons without season passes. He said the concessions are handled by a private company with its own auditing system.
Fisher confirmed no charges have been filed and the investigation "is focused on the actions of one individual." However, he did not exclude the possibility of the investigation uncovering the involvement of other individuals.
Francis said he could not quantify the amount of money said to be missing.
"We cannot estimate or speculate about a total loss," he said.
Francis said city officials had no cause for concern until Hilliard police received information indicating a possible theft.
Fisher would not reveal the source of that information or when it was received.
He said given the records and data under review, he expected "significant time" will be required to complete the investigation.
When asked about current employee protocol for recording the number of daily visitors who pay cash and how the money is received and deposited, recreation and parks director Steve Mazer replied he had no comment and directed any further inquires to the city’s communications department.
In reaction to the reported theft, Mayor Don Schonhardt indicated through a press release his desire to transition to a cashless system citywide in 2018, stating the city is "undertaking every step to determine the loss of funds and hold accountable (those) that betrayed the public trust."
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