The Hilliard Division of Police filed charges last week against a former Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department employee in connection with the theft of cash from admission fees collected at the city’s two pools.
Heather Ernst, 47, of Hilliard was charged with theft in office, a third-degree felony, according to police.
She turned herself in Dec. 22 and was issued a summons to appear Jan. 5 in Franklin County Municipal Court for arraignment.
Police Chief Bobby Fisher said at a press conference the afternoon of Dec. 22 that the sum of money was “in the six-figure range,” but he would not reveal the amount because of the ongoing investigation.
“We can’t share specifically what that is right now,” he said.
Fisher said authorities believe the alleged thefts began in May 2013.
A preliminary investigation by Hilliard police had indicated not all cash proceeds from the Hilliard Family Aquatic Center and the Hilliard East Municipal Pool were accounted for in deposits made during an unspecified period of time, according to Doug Francis, the city’s director of communications and information technology.
Ernst, who was deputy director of the recreation and parks department, was responsible for the daily accounting of cash intake and daily deposits for the pools, according to the city; the investigation determined she did not deposit the proceeds in full and she “provided false information to the city to support the shortened or missing deposits.”
“Our investigation has shown she created a system where cash proceeds from the pools were channeled in a manner that she was able to control those proceeds,” Fisher said at the press conference.
He said she deposited money into her personal account, and police are “confident she acted alone.”
Ernst directed a request for comment to her Columbus-based attorney, Joe Edwards, who said she plans to plead not guilty to the charges.
“Heather denies guilt,” Edwards said.
He said he has not yet reviewed the evidence.
“This is early on,” Edwards said. “We don’t have any records that Hilliard has used. We’ve never had a chance to look at them. ... Hopefully, we can have an opportunity to review those records.”
Ernst was not mentioned specifically during the early parts of the investigation, but she resigned Nov. 1 before it became public.
Ernst told ThisWeek on Nov. 21 that she resigned “to focus on my health.”
“It is what I had to do to fight this cancer,” she said, referring to the health condition she cited in her resignation letter.
The letter also referenced the lack of a policy for depositing money from the pools into a bank on a daily basis and stated many people would have had access to the money before it reached her. The letter said the concerns went back to the summer of 2015 but she was not told of them until Oct. 16.
Francis would not say when Hilliard police first were advised of the alleged discrepancies or when the Ohio Auditor of State was enlisted to help investigate but he said the third week of October was when the investigation was communicated to top city officials. He said City Council members were notified Nov. 1.
Fisher also would not confirm when the investigation started but said a “confidential investigative source” told police about the thefts.
Franklin County Municipal Court documents say Oct. 20 was when a complaint was filed but the “confidential source” had told Hilliard police in 2016 about Ernst’s alleged actions. After being contacted by the source, the documents said investigators determined Ernst had been “depositing large amounts of cash into her personal checking account during the months of May-August.”
Investigators found evidence that showed “a discrepancy between the sales at the pools compared to the amount of cash deposited and recorded by the city of Hilliard finance department” from 2013 to 2017, the documents said, and the “discrepancy” was determined to be “more than $7,500.”
“We feel confident based on the evidence we have we can prove what was taken and the manner it was taken, and then we have some speculation as to what it went to, but I can’t say specifically what that is right now,” Fisher said. “Once it goes to grand jury, there are other charges that potentially could come, but this starts the process and the investigation will continue.”
If convicted of theft in office, Ernst would face up to five years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine, according to the city. In such cases, the Ohio Revised Code permits a public employee’s retirement funds be frozen until the criminal case is disposed, and if the employee were convicted, those funds could be used as restitution to the city, the release said.
Ernst was employed by the city for 24 years and served as deputy director of the recreation and parks department since 2012, according to the city.
Recreation and parks department director Steve Mazer declined to comment on the charges.
Hilliard Mayor Don Schonhardt said via a release that city leaders would “keep the public informed as the investigation continues and more information becomes available.”
He said the city also would review its financial controls with the state auditor’s office.
“An outside entity will be hired to review the city’s policies and procedures, including financial accountability and personnel administration, in all departments,” he said in the release. “In addition, the city will implement a cashless system and is investigating the best options for that to occur.
“I want to ensure we are implementing best practices to manage and account for all public dollars. While I have no reason to believe that any other cash funds or public dollars have been unaccounted for, I want a holistic review of our policies and procedures.
“The case will unfold in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas. No further comments will be made by the city of Hilliard at this time.”
Check ThisWeekNEWS.com/Hilliard for updates to this story.
ThisWeek assignment editor Neil Thompson contributed to this story.