A civil complaint against Heather H. Ernst, the former deputy director of the Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department, is expected to continue, even after she pleaded guilty to two charges Oct. 3 in the courtroom of Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge David Cain.
Hilliard City Council member Les Carrier said Oct. 9 the civil lawsuit is expected to proceed. Hilliard law director Tracy Bradford confirmed the "civil case is still active."
Hilliard's civil suit alleges that Ernst, 47, stole more than $540,000 in daily cash deposits from the city's two pool facilities from May 2013 to fall 2017; the amount would be almost twice as much money as alleged in her criminal trial.
The civil complaint – which was filed March 15 and amended in September, according to common-pleas court records, to include her husband, Moses A. Ernst, as a co-defendant – claims that during the course of 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.
The $270,000 figure was mentioned in the criminal trial, in which Ernst is scheduled to be sentenced at 9 a.m. Nov. 16 after pleading 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. Ernst had been 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.
Cain accepted the plea agreement and ordered a pre-sentencing investigation.
"She has accepted responsibility" and agreed to make restitution, said Stephen Palmer, who with Joseph Edwards, represents Ernst in the criminal case.
According to her attorneys and Jeff Blake, an assistant prosecutor for the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office, Ernst has agreed to and is expected to be ordered at her sentencing to make restitution of $271,898.
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," and she also altered receipts to conceal the discrepancies between pool admissions totals and deposits.
Much of the restitution will be achieved, Edwards said, by the forfeiture of $200,000 Ernst had accrued through the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System.
Ernst faces up to 36 months in prison and a $10,000 fine for theft in office and 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine for attempted tampering with evidence, Palmer said.
If sentenced to maximum consecutive sentences, Ernst faces 4 1/2 years in prison and fines of $15,000, though her attorneys will seek probation, he said.
Palmer confirmed Ernst is continuing to battle health problems that Ernst identified as cancer-related in a resignation letter submitted Nov. 1, 2017 to the city.
Ernst 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.
Ernst was paid an annual salary of $88,280.59 and had benefits valued at $43,155, according to city officials, at the time of her resignation.
Though both Hilliard investigators and the city's civil lawsuit have used a figure almost double the restitution amount, said David Goldstein, the attorney representing Ernst in the civil lawsuit, the city has yet to prove it.
"We dispute the allegations (against Heather Ernst)," Goldstein said. "Our position is a lot of people had access to the money (other) than Ernst. The city is claiming that $541,000 is gone but we haven't seen proof of that yet."
Edwards shared a similar view.
"Hilliard thinks there is more (money) but Hilliard can think what they want to think," Edwards said.
As of Oct. 8, court records identified Goldstein as the attorney for only Heather Ernst in the civil trial.
Moses Ernst has "no attorney on record" according to the civil case entry.
ThisWeek has been unable to identify an attorney for Moses Ernst and attempts to reach him through social media have been unsuccessful.
The civil case is scheduled for trial in the common-pleas courtroom of Judge Jenifer French in April 2019.
Hilliard is being represented by two firms, PetersonConnors and Lane Alton, in the civil lawsuit. Hilliard City Council in September authorized the expenditure of $315,000, allowing Bradford to execute the contract.
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 previously would not comment on the circumstances involving the change in legal representation.
Ernst's plea in the criminal trial came one week after her trial was continued to 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.