The civil trial for a former Hilliard employee is not scheduled to begin until April 2019 but both sides involved in the case seem to be busy preparing for it.
Hilliard City Council on Sept. 10 appropriated $315,000 toward legal expenses related to the city's lawsuit against Heather H. Ernst, the former deputy director of the Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department.
A Franklin County grand jury on March 1 indicted Ernst, 47, on eight felony counts: one count of theft, one count of theft in office, a third-degree felony; two counts of tampering with evidence, a third-degree felony; and four counts of filing an incomplete, false and fraudulent tax records, a fifth-degree felony.
Ernst pleaded not guilty to the charges. A trial date in the courtroom of Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge David Cain is scheduled to begin Sept. 26.
Court documents revealed that from May 2013 to fall 2017, $541,331 was unaccounted for from deposits from the city's two pool facilities but Councilman Les Carrier has urged his peers to commission a forensic audit that would look back farther to determine if more money is missing.
Meanwhile, the city is moving forward with the separate civil complaint against Ernst.
According to court records, multiple city officials and current and former city employees are potential witnesses in the civil case.
One of those witnesses is the daughter of council President Albert Iosue, according to a court document disclosing witnesses that Ernst's civil-trial attorney David Goldstein intends to call at witnesses for the defense.
"We dispute the allegations (against Ernst) and are continuing to depose witnesses," Goldstein said. "Our position is a lot of people had access to the money and to the safe other than (Ernst).
According to the disclosure, Lauren Iosue "will be cross-examined about her access to cash, pool procedures and internal controls (and) as to all allegations contained in the complaint."
As a result, Iosue excused himself from a City Council executive session Sept. 10.
"I've requested an advisory opinion from the Ohio Ethics Commission as to whether there is a conflict of interest for me," Iosue said.
The commission replied Sept. 11 via letter that it would appear to be a conflict.
According to court records, Carrier also will be called as a witness for the defense.
When asked about his continuing involvement in discussions about the civil lawsuit – he attended the Sept. 10 executive session – Carrier replied the city is at a "critical juncture" and although he strives to be forthcoming, " I need to respect our current process and our experts as (the case) progresses."
Carrier also said he had solicited an opinion from the Ohio Ethics Commission concerning his status as a potential witness.
The ethics commission replied to Carrier in a Sept. 12 letter and advised, based on the facts Carrier put forth in his inquiry, that state ethics laws would not prohibit Carrier from continuing to deliberate in matters related to the civil and criminal litigation against Ernst.
The document disclosing witnesses lists 12 individuals, including Carrier, the only council member named individually, but it also states that "any and all council members during the time of the alleged theft" could be called.
Other witnesses for the defense, according to the court records, include Doug Francis, the director of internet technology and communications, and Steve Mazer, the former director of recreation and parks whom Mayor Don Schonhardt fired March 8.
Goldstein said more witnesses would be disclosed on the court record in the months leading up to trial.
City Council's appropriation of $315,000 is for the law firms of PetersonConners and Lane Alton to represent the city, according to law director Tracy Bradford.
According to Common Pleas Court records, on Aug. 23 a motion was granted accepting the withdrawal of Taft Stettinius & Hollister as counsel representing Hilliard in the civil case against Ernst.
Bradford would not comment on the circumstances involving the change in legal representation.
In addition to changes in the legal counsel, several property transactions involving Ernst recently have been recorded.
According to records at the Franklin County Auditor's Office, Heather and Moses Ernst sold a residence at 4639 Schirtzinger Road for $375,000. The property transferred July 12, records indicate.
Records also show that Phyllis and Wibur Ernst sold a residence at 4643 Schirtzinger Road for $475,000. That property also transferred July 12, records show.
Phyllis Ernst is the mother-in-law of Heather Ernst, whose husband, Moses, is the son of Phyllis and the late Wilbur Ernst. Phyllis Ernst also is a former director of the Hilliard Parks and Recreation Department.
Advanced Drainage Systems, 4640 Trueman Blvd., purchased both properties, according to court records.
Records show a third property that Heather and Moses Ernst owned transferred July 5.
The property at 4809 Farber Row, in the Columbus portion of the Hilliard City Schools district, sold for $210,000 to Perfection Properties of Ohio.