The city of Hilliard is paying an attorney to inquire how the Hilliard Division of Police conducted its criminal investigation of former Hilliard Recreation and Parks deputy director Heather Ernst, who is serving a 12-month prison sentence after being convicted of theft in office.
Meanwhile, police Chief Bobby Fisher on Jan. 22 sent a four-page letter to Hilliard City Council President Albert Iosue, outlining the progression of the investigation from the moment a confidential source first informed police in late 2015 that Ernst might be engaged in criminal activity.>> Summary of Ernst investigation timeline <<
The inquiry into the police investigation, which began in December, allegedly was launched by City Council after members received information from a former Hilliard officer, Curtis Baker, who is deputy chief of the Reynoldsburg Division of Police and worked in Hilliard from 1999 to April 2017.
That information has not been disclosed through interviews with City Council members, but ThisWeek has left a message with Reynoldsburg police seeking comment from Baker and has made a records request to the city of Hilliard for council members’ emails.
It also is not clear how City Council members arrived at the decision to authorize law director Tracy Bradford to hire a law firm to investigate, but Bradford said she was directed by City Council to draft legislation to do so Nov. 26.
That direction was given after a lengthy executive session at which McGivern said information was provided to City Council that prompted the investigation.
With no discussion on the measure, City Council approved a resolution Dec. 10, allowing Bradford to enter into a contract “with outside legal counsel” for legal services “involving the performance and conduct of employees and officials of the city.”
“It was important for (our attorney) to look into these allegations and for us to follow through on the information provided,” council Vice President Kelly McGivern said Jan. 25.
McGivern confirmed Baker was the source of the information that was a factor in seeking the investigation.
“I never questioned that (Hilliard) police did anything wrong, but we have a requirement of due diligence to look into it,” McGivern said.
Iosue said he also had questions about how the investigation unfolded.
“We felt we needed more answers,” he said Jan. 23.
Iosue said the inquiry was deemed necessary because council members “wanted to know who knew what and when.”>> Iosue responds with letter to Fisher <<
Bradford hired Scott Scriven LLC as City Council’s outside legal counsel.
Bill Creedon, an attorney at that firm, is representing City Council. When reached at his office, Creedon referred any questions about the investigation to City Council and said he could not comment on it.
Council member Nathan Painter cast the dissenting vote against the Dec. 10 resolution, which was approved 3-1 by Iosue, Tom Baker and Pete Marsh. McGivern, Les Carrier and Andy Teater were absent, according to council clerk Lynne Fasone.
“I am not willing to write another blank check to another attorney, especially since the city has already paid over $250,000 in attorney fees in the Ernst matter, when monies that may be recouped in the first place would not cover what she stole, let alone what has been paid in attorney fees to recover those funds,” Painter said.
Painter said he voted against the measure “because there was no defined scope for (Creedon’s) work.”
“It had already become crystal clear before Mr. Creedon’s involvement that the cash policies of the city were not just inept but nonexistent,” he said. “The focus should be on taking steps to prevent this from ever happening again.
“Mr. Creedon’s involvement does not in any way shed more light on something that has already been demonstrated needs to be fixed.”
Ernst, 48, 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 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,” and Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge David Cain on Nov. 16 ordered her to make restitution of $271,898.
Responding to the inquiry, Fisher told ThisWeek it is “an obvious attempt to discredit our organization.”
In the Jan. 22 letter to Iosue, Fisher wrote that “given the misinformation that I am hearing being circulated (about the Ernst investigation), I believe it appropriate to provide the details of this investigation and a timeline to you, and our community, to ensure transparency.”
That letter provided a timeline for the criminal investigation from when police were tipped off in late 2015 that Ernst was making “unusually large” deposits into a personal bank account.
The letter included an account of a “cursory check” in 2015 showing no criminal activity, another tip from the same source in late 2016 that Ernst “was again depositing an unusually large amount of money,” attempts in 2017 to launch investigations with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Ohio Department of Taxation “in an effort to remain unbiased and transparent,” efforts “to determine if there was any criminal nature behind the funds described by the confidential source” and, finally, the decision “to conduct the investigation ourselves because there were no other agencies who were willing to take it on.”
Iosue and McGivern said they generally were satisfied with the information Fisher provided but the same was not true for Carrier.
“I want to know why the money kept going out the door as long as it did,” Carrier said.
He said there is much more to know about Ernst’s investigation than the provided timeline.
“I think the letter raises even more questions. ... This whole investigation was laden in conflict,” Carrier said.
He said he wants City Council’s investigation to determine if any other parties are culpable for the loss of revenue from the pools and why Ernst seemingly was allowed to continue stealing money after a confidential informant first alerted police to the possibility in late 2015.
“I don’t want a report from the chief; I want a report from our expert,” Carrier said. “I want to know for our taxpayers why money kept going out the door.”
Teater said he favors the hiring of the attorney.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” he said, and Fisher’s letter “raises more questions.”
Teater said his purpose for the investigation is to determine why it took so long and whether employees other than Ernst were possibly involved or complacent.
“I want to know why it took so long and why that much money was allowed to be stolen,” he said.
Fisher answered those questions for ThisWeek.
“Financial-crime cases require a significant amount of time to collect evidence, analyze documents and determine facts,” he said. “Many times these cases take multiple years. As is typical in criminal cases, the announcement on the Ernst case was made at the time when public knowledge of the investigation would not result in an impediment to the investigation nor impact successful prosecution of the case.”
Meanwhile, Baker said he feels “a personal duty to the community to perform due diligence in the matter” and Marsh said he had no comment on the inquiry.
The inquiry began Dec. 20 and Scott Scriven LLC is to be paid $225 per hour, plus expenses, according to David Ball, director of communications for Hilliard.
As of Jan. 25, the city has received no invoice from Scott Scriven LLC for services rendered, Ball said.
“I’m sure the firm is keeping track of their time, but as of (Jan. 25), the city has not received an invoice for the number of hours logged for services rendered to date,” he said.
The legislation authorizes Bradford to enter into contracts that “may exceed $50,000, subject to the appropriation of sufficient funds.”
The contract does not have a funding cap, according to Ball.
It is also unclear how Creedon is conducting his investigation thus far.
“Our administration has had no direct communication from Mr. Creedon,” Fisher said Jan. 25. “We learned about the investigation in January from city administration.”
Furthermore, Fisher said, council members missed an opportunity in mid-2018 to learn more about the investigation.
“When the investigation was initially announced, (Bradford) asked if I would share some basic information in executive session with council,” he said.
At some point in mid-2018, Bradford asked Fisher to provide another update.
Fisher said he first contacted the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office for guidance about what could be shared about the active investigation.
“I was prepared to provide some basic information after that discussion but was never invited into an executive session to talk to council,” he said.
City Council will decide Monday, Jan. 28, whether it will continue the inquiry, Iosue said.
Creedon already has provided council members with some findings, Carrier said, and he is expected to meet with City Council members in an executive session after the regular meeting at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 at the Hilliard Municipal Building, 3800 Municipal Way
“(Creedon) is finishing up some information for us that we expect him to present (Jan. 28),” McGivern said. “For me, I anticipate that will put will put an end to my questions.”
Fisher said Jan. 24 that no council members asked about the investigation process after Ernst accepted a plea in October.
“Once the prosecution was completed and Ernst received her sentence, Hilliard police could have provided a timeline to council had the agency been asked,” he said. “It was the continued perseverance of Hilliard police that justice was done.”
“We are losing sight of who truly is at fault: Heather Ernst,” he said. “Because of the efforts of our police department, she is in prison.”
Check www.ThisWeekNEWS.com/Hilliard for updates to this story.