An attorney representing Heather Ernst, former deputy director of the Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department, said Jan. 5 that Ernst's initial appearance for arraignment in Franklin County Municipal Court was waived.

Ernst, 47, has been accused of stealing admission fees collected at the city's two pools over the course of multiple years. She has been charged with theft in office, a third-degree felony, according to Hilliard Division of Police.

Joe Edwards, the attorney representing Ernst, said the case was dismissed from the municipal court.

"We asked for (the case) to be bound over (to the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas)," Edwards said.

Edwards said he, Ernst and the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office reached an agreement to waive the initial appearance to allow for the gathering of relevant evidence. Defendants are entitled to a preliminary hearing in municipal court, where felony cases typically are dismissed for direct or future indictment, he said.

In this instance, they agreed to waive the hearing and send the case to the common-pleas court until such a time the prosecutors are prepared to present to a grand jury, Edwards said.

Prosecutor Jeff Blake said he could not comment on an active case that has not been presented to a grand jury.

Ernst had turned herself in Dec. 22 and was issued a summons to appear Jan. 5 in municipal court for arraignment.

Edwards said prosecutors have 60 days from the time of her arrest Dec. 22 to present the case to a Franklin County grand jury for indictment consideration.

"Meanwhile, we have the opportunity to begin to understand any evidence against her," Edwards said.

Ernst remains free and denies guilt, he said.

Edwards said Jan. 5 he had not received any documents from Hilliard police but added that officials have been respectful to Ernst by allowing her to turn herself in at the police station and be processed there Dec. 22.

He said discovery – the pre-trial procedure in which each party can obtain evidence from the other – would not begin until after an indictment but he expects to get some information from prosecutors beforehand.

Case background

A preliminary investigation announced by Hilliard police in November 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.

Police Chief Bobby Fisher said at a press conference Dec. 22 that the sum of money Ernst is accused of stealing was "in the six-figure range," but he would not reveal the amount because of the ongoing investigation. Fisher said authorities believe the alleged thefts began in May 2013.

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."

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.

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 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.

"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."

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.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo