Heather H. Ernst, the former deputy director of the Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department, was sentenced to 12 months in prison by Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge David Cain on Nov. 16.
Cain ordered the prison sentence to begin Jan. 2. The sentence includes three years of community service, according to a release from Hilliard.
Ernst, 47, on Oct. 3 had pleaded guilty to one count of theft in office, a third-degree felony, and one count of attempted tampering with records, a fourth-degree felony.
Hilliard investigators had determined last year the city was missing more than $500,000 in daily admission fees from the city’s two pool facilities from May 2013 to fall 2017.
Jeff Blake, an assistant prosecutor for the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office, said during the Oct. 3 proceedings that investigators had determined Ernst had used $271,898 as “lifestyle spending” and as “regular things people spend money on.”
“She was in a position of trust, so much so that oversight was lacking,” Blake said Nov. 16.
Ernst did not speak Nov. 16 when offered the opportunity by Cain.
Prior to the sentencing, Hilliard City Council member Nathan Painter spoke on behalf of the city. All seven council members were present.
Painter called Ernst a “predator," a term Stephen Palmer, an attorney representing Ernst, later challenged.
Palmer asked that Cain consider Ernst’s mental and physical health in considering sentencing.
“She has no prior record. To call her a predator is disingenuous,” Palmer said after the sentencing.
Ernst has accepted responsibility and agreed to make restitution to the city, Palmer said.
Blake said Oct. 3 Ernst had agreed to make restitution of $271,898, and Cain ordered her to do so Nov. 16.
Ernst faced up to 4 1/2 years in prison and fines up to $15,000, according to a previous statement from Hilliard.
Cain said Ernst’s cooperation and agreement to restitution, as well as her physical and mental health, were considered.
“Because of these things I will give you less than I could give you,” Cain said.
Blake told the court that although Ernst’s health – she is fighting cancer – was a factor when considering length of incarceration, “a prison sentence is appropriate.”
He said her health was not a motive in the theft because the money did not appear to be used for medical bills.
Ernst had told ThisWeek on Nov. 21, 2017, the same day the city revealed publicly the Hilliard Division of Police was investigating a theft from the city’s two pools “in the six-figure range,” according to police Chief Bobby Fisher, that she resigned “to focus on my health.”
“It is what I had to do to fight this cancer,” Ernst said, referring to the condition she cited in her resignation letter to the city.
“Cancer is still very present,” Palmer told the court.
He also divulged her treatment for mental illness, saying Ernst has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“She is two people,” he said. “She did betray trust, no question ... but she has led a great life.”
Palmer said regardless of whether Cain gave her probation or prison, “she won’t do it again.”
Meanwhile, a civil trial in the courtroom of Judge Jenifer French is scheduled to start Oct. 15, according to the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas website.
Hilliard leaders filed a civil lawsuit against Ernst on March 15, and that complaint was amended in September to include her husband, Moses A. Ernst, as a co-defendant, according to common-pleas court records.
“While the criminal case has concluded, the city will continue with its civil case against Ms. Ernst to discover and retrieve every dollar that she stole and used for her own personal gain,” Mayor Don Schonhardt said in a statement.
The civil complaint said that during the course of Heather Ernst’s employment with the city, the “defendants retained at least $541,000, depositing at least $270,000 into accounts owned or controlled by the defendants.” Some of the deposits were made into a checking account owned by Moses Ernst, according to the complaint.
“Hilliard thinks there is more (money) but Hilliard can think what they want to think,” Joe Edwards, Ernst’s other attorney in the criminal proceedings, said last month.