Attorneys representing former Hilliard Recreation and Parks deputy director Heather H. Ernst said they are preparing to mount a defense after reviewing evidence authorities say supports felony charges of theft.
How the Hilliard Division of Police arrived at those charges, which were filed Dec. 22, still is unclear.
Today a grand jury indicted a former City of Hilliard employee on 8 felonies in connection with more than $500,000 of missing pool money. Read the full media release here:pic.twitter.com/S056fCuUmH— Hilliard Ohio Police (@Hilliard_Police)March 1, 2018
Andrea Litchfield, a Hilliard police spokeswoman, said the case remains active and police could not comment on certain parts of the investigation, including how investigators determined more than $540,000 was stolen from the city's two pool facilities.
No amount of money had been specified until March 1 when a Franklin County grand jury indicted Ernst, 47, of Hilliard on eight felony counts: one count of theft, a third-degree felony; one count of theft in office, a third-degree felony; two counts of tampering with records, a third-degree felony; and four counts of filing incomplete, false and fraudulent tax returns, a fifth-degree felony.
"Our position is to plead not guilty and fight the case," said Stephen Palmer, an attorney representing Ernst. "This is our first time to step in the ring.
"A lot of people have drawn conclusions, we think, based on what the city (of Hilliard) has said. Now we will have access to all the evidence (and) will mount a defense."
"We are pleased with the indictments (and) look forward to the judicial process being carried out," Hilliard police Chief Robert Fisher said.
Ernst is scheduled for arraignment March 16 in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas.
Ernst was deputy director of the recreation and parks department since 2012 and oversaw the Hilliard Family Aquatic Center in Roger A. Reynolds Municipal Park and the Hilliard East Municipal Pool on Schirtzinger Road, according to city officials. She was a city employee for 24 years.
As deputy director, she was responsible for the daily accounting of cash intakes and deposits for the pools, according to Mayor Don Schonhardt.
Hilliard police believe the daily cash proceeds from pool-admission fees were not deposited in full by Ernst and she provided false information to the city to support shortened or missing deposits.
"Ms. Ernst abused her position of power to manipulate records and deceive the city's finance department in order to benefit herself," Schonhardt said.
From May 2013 to fall 2017, $541,331 was unaccounted for from pool deposits, police said, and records indicate more than $270,000 was deposited into Ernst's personal bank accounts and not reported on her taxes.
How police arrived at that figure remains unclear because comprehensive pools admission figures from the years in question do not appear to be available.
Steve Mazer, director of the recreation and parks department, said the city recorded attendance figures only for patrons with pool memberships and did not track how many people paid for daily admission.
However, Mazer provided the amount of receipts for daily admission that were deposited during the same time period.
Revenue from daily cash admissions increased each year at both pools from 2013 to 2017, almost doubling at the Hilliard Family Aquatic Center and more than tripling at the Hilliard East Municipal Pool, according to the city's records. Daily admission is $10; senior citizens pay $5.
At the aquatics center, Mazer said, $60,670 in daily admission fees was recorded in 2013; $63,159 in 2014; $84,287 in 2015; $91,817 in 2016; and $116,772 in 2017. At the East pool, the city reported $6,981 in 2013; $5,693 in 2014; $9,411 in 2015; $12,334 in 2016; and $23,778 in 2017.
Mazer said future records would include attendance figures for both memberships and daily admissions.
"The record-keeping methods used for 2018 will (include) all admissions to the pools," he said.
Mazer referred other questions, including why the recreation and parks department did not appear to track attendance with the daily cash admissions, to the police division. Litchfield said police could not comment, again citing the open investigation.
The city on Nov. 21 announced the preliminary investigation into the missing money but did not identify Ernst as the subject of the investigation, specify how much was suspected to have been stolen beyond saying "in the six-figure range" or reveal how or when Hilliard police received information indicating a possible theft.
Ernst had resigned Nov. 1 and told ThisWeek via email Nov. 21 that she resigned "to focus on my health" and fight a cancer diagnosis.
Her resignation letter dated Nov. 1 referenced 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.