Heather H. Ernst, the former deputy director of the Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department, pleaded guilty to two charges this morning, Wednesday, Oct. 3, in the courtroom of Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge David Cain.
Ernst has been accused by Hilliard investigators of stealing more than $500,000 from the city’s two pool facilities from May 2013 to fall 2017.
She was indicted by a Franklin County grand jury in March for one count of theft, a third-degree felony; 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 incomplete, false and fraudulent tax records, a fifth-degree felony.
She pleaded guilty to one count of theft in office and an amended, reduced charge of attempted tampering with records, a fourth-degree felony. The other six counts were dismissed, per a plea agreement.
Cain accepted the plea agreement and ordered a pre-sentencing investigation.
Sentencing is scheduled at 9 a.m. Nov. 16.
Ernst agreed to pay restitution of $271,898, according to Jeff Blake, an assistant prosecutor for the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office.
During the Oct. 3 proceedings, Blake said investigators have determined she used $271,898 as "lifestyle spending" and as "regular things people spend money on."
Restitution would be ordered at Ernst's sentencing, according to Hilliard law director Tracy Bradford.
Ernst faces up to 4 1/2 years in prison and fines up to $15,000, according to a statement from the city.
“With the plea of guilty on these felony charges, it is an admission by her that she violated the public trust. Ms. Ernst manipulated the City’s financial controls for her own personal gain and I am pleased that she is ready to accept the consequences of her actions,” Mayor Don Schonhardt said in the statement.
Ernst's plea came one week after her trial was continued until Oct. 30. The trial originally was set for June 6 but was continued to July 16 and again to Sept. 26 before being delayed to Oct. 30.
Meanwhile, a civil trial in the common-pleas courtroom of Judge Jenifer French is scheduled for April.
Hilliard leaders filed a civil lawsuit against Ernst on March 15, and that complaint was amended in September, according to common-pleas court records, to include her husband, Moses A. Ernst, as a co-defendant. Moses Ernst was not listed as such in the criminal trial as of Oct. 2.
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," said Joe Edwards, Ernst's attorney in the criminal proceedings.
David Goldstein is the attorney representing Heather Ernst in the civil case.
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