Hilliard City Council on Jan. 28 decided to end its inquiry into how the Hilliard Division of Police carried out its criminal investigation of former Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department deputy director Heather Ernst.

But fireworks still went off in council chambers at the Hilliard Municipal Building, particularly when the impetus for the inquiry – a text exchange between council member Les Carrier and former Hilliard police Sgt. Curtis Baker from a year ago – was revealed and debated.

Costs of the inquiry still are unknown.

The firm contracted to conduct the inquiry, Scott Scriven LLC, has not submitted an invoice for work already performed, council clerk Lynne Fasone said.

The firm’s contract also did not have a funding cap, according to Hilliard spokesman David Ball.

The inquiry began Dec. 20 and Scott Scriven LLC is to be paid $225 per hour, plus expenses, Ball said.

It also is unclear how Bill Creedon, an attorney with Scott Scriven LLC, has conducted the inquiry.

“Our administration has had no direct communication from Mr. Creedon,” Fisher said Jan. 25. “We learned about the investigation in January from city administration.”

Meeting revelations

City Council’s 7-0 decision to end the inquiry was rendered after a one-hour executive session that followed a tense exchange between Carrier and police Chief Bobby Fisher.

During that exchange, council member Nathan Painter interjected to call the inquiry a “witch hunt.” Carrier, who had supported the inquiry, called it “necessary.”

An overflow gallery, including police officers, applauded, prompting council President Albert Iosue to admonish the room and ask the audience to “respect the conversation.”

Earlier in the meeting, Carrier had revealed why City Council launched the inquiry using Creedon.

Carrier read aloud text messages he had received from Baker, who now is deputy chief of the Reynoldsburg Division of Police.

The messages alleged Hilliard police had not done enough to investigate tips from a confidential informant regarding Ernst’s irregular finances when they were received, Carrier said.

Hilliard investigators were tipped in late 2015 (for which evidence at the time did not show criminal activity, according to Fisher’s letter sent to Iosue on Jan. 22 to outline the investigation) and late 2016, according to Fisher, but Baker’s messages to him alleged police might have been aware in 2014, Carrier said during the meeting.

However, in a Jan. 26 letter from Baker to Creedon, Baker outlined the concerns he shared with Carrier and wrote that he informed Carrier the first tip would have been in 2015, not 2014.

>> Summary of Ernst investigation timeline <<

The texts between Carrier and Baker, obtained by ThisWeek through a records request, show that Baker said, “Don’t hold me to it but I would guess 2014,” on Dec. 22, 2017, but told Carrier that after he spoke with Reynoldsburg police Chief David Plesich – a former colleague in Hilliard – that “it was (probably) beginning of 2015,” and he attributed the 2014 date to another case.

“I provided this new date to Councilman Carrier during the first part of January 2018,” Baker wrote. “I have not discussed the issue with Councilman Carrier since that time.”

Baker also told Creedon in his letter that after the investigation of Ernst was made public in November 2017, “almost immediately there began to be questions within the city about who knew what about the investigation.”

Baker wrote that after hearing allegations that he and Plesich did not properly follow up on tips before their involvement with the case ended in the middle of 2016, he contacted Carrier in December 2017 to reveal his “minimal involvement” in the case.

“I told (Carrier) I thought it might have been 2014,” he wrote. “Councilman Carrier replied that all the press releases were showing that the investigation started in 2016.”

In closing, Baker wrote, “I strongly disagree with any suggestion that there was a ‘cover-up’ of this crime. However, I do not believe it is inappropriate for City Council to inquire whether this case was treated differently than if a lower-level employee was the subject of the investigation and if so, ask why?”

Carrier’s case

Carrier acknowledged that in January 2018, Baker had indicated the first tip Hilliard police received likely was in 2015, “but (the text messages) still needed to be vetted,” he said.

After the criminal investigation closed with Ernst’s guilty plea in October 2018, Carrier said, he wanted to investigate Baker’s text messages. He said Baker’s account of the early stages of the investigation “might not be truthful but were plausible.”

“I couldn’t get the text messages out there any different than I did,” Carrier said. “It couldn’t be done during the investigation; it had to wait (until the criminal case concluded).”

Ernst, 48, on Oct. 3 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. She was sentenced to a year in prison.

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.

City Council’s Nov. 26 meeting was the first regular meeting after Ernst’s sentencing, and it was where Carrier directed law director Tracy Bradford to draft a resolution – 18-R-117, which stated its purpose was to hire outside legal counsel “for legal services related to matters involving the performance and conduct of employees and officials of the City” – that was approved Dec. 10.

“I knew when I brought the texts forward, (the police) would not be happy but it needed vetted,” Carrier said. “I don’t mind taking the bullets. The facts speak for themselves and people can make their own judgments.”

Carrier said Jan. 29 that he does not plan to seek further inquires but instead would focus on the city’s civil lawsuit against Ernst.

Hilliard leaders filed the civil suit March 15, and that complaint was amended in September to include Ernst’s husband, Moses A. Ernst, as a co-defendant, according to common-pleas court records. The civil complaint said 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.”

Thus far, the civil lawsuit has cost the city $253,891, according to Painter. The civil trial isn’t scheduled to begin until Oct. 15, according to the common-pleas court records. An initial disclosure of witnesses of the plaintiff – Hilliard – was filed Jan. 4, and it includes Heather and Moses Ernst, Phyllis Ernst, detective Marcus Blevins, Lt. Doug Lightfoot, finance director David Delande, Baker, Fisher and Plesich.

For now, Painter said, he supports the city moving forward with its civil lawsuit, but that “principle has a price” and council members must remain aware of what they are spending and what they can expect to recover.

Iosue said he is not in favor of the continuation of the civil lawsuit, “but that is a decision for all of council.”

Fisher’s response

After Carrier read the messages he had exchanged with Baker to the audience assembled in council chambers Jan. 28, Fisher responded.

“I’m shocked you are attacking the credibility (of the police division),” Fisher said. “Mr. Baker left our organization very disgruntled and there have been a number of situations where he’s worked very hard to try and discredit me and this organization.”

Baker, who had served in Hilliard since 1999, joined the New Albany Police Department as a sergeant in April 2017. He was hired as Reynoldsburg’s deputy chief last October.

Fisher called the information Carrier shared about the investigation “fabrications” and challenged Carrier why he did not launch an inquiry sooner.

“Because we had a criminal investigation going on that took nine months,” Carrier replied. “I wouldn’t want to interfere with that investigation, either.”

Fisher expressed frustration that Carrier did not approach police with his concerns.

“No one from City Council, you or anyone else, asked for information (after the adjudication of Ernst),” he said. “However, you reached out to the media to paint a picture of misconduct prior to even any kind of review being done.”

Fisher told Carrier he sent his Jan. 22 letter to Iosue to detail how the investigation unfolded, including the manner in which such financial crimes must be investigated.

The Jan. 22 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.”

“We laid that out in the letter to help you understand, but you keep saying we knew she was stealing in 2015, and that’s not the case,” Fisher said.

“I understand your bravado and, ‘Oh, you’re attacking the department,’ (but) I’m doing nothing of the sort. ... I want an independent body to look at it all and tell us and the community what happened: Here’s how the money kept going out the door,” Carrier replied. “I think they are entitled to that.”

Painter, the only council member to vote against hiring outside legal counsel when approved Dec. 10 by a 3-1 vote, then challenged Carrier.

“What theory of liability or criminality do you have (to demand an investigation of Fisher and former Chief Doug Francis)?” Painter asked.

“It’s not the evidence I have; it’s the questions I’ve asked,” Carrier replied. “Could we have found a leak earlier and stopped the thefts?”

Painter, who is an attorney, said he had reviewed thousands of cases, including the entire Ernst investigative file, and “there is nothing in that investigation that is not common to every other investigation.”

“This is a witch hunt,” Painter said. “I agree going after Ms. Ernst. She is the only person who has criminal culpability and civil liability other than maybe her husband. That is where the focus should be. Should there have been changes in the administration? Absolutely. (But) this has got to end with respect to the police officers.”

Council Vice President Kelly McGivern said although “it was appropriate that council perform due diligence” into the information provided, she considered it inappropriate that the information became public.

“When we get information, we have a responsibility to look into it,” she said. “We looked into the way we should have. I fully support (Hilliard police) and believe they did an excellent job. I don’t support going forward with any inquiry.”

Iosue said Jan. 29 that he viewed City Council’s action not as an investigation, but an inquiry into information provided by Baker.

“City Council had a responsibility to verify the accuracy of the information, especially where public tax dollars were stolen by a respected member of the community and a long-term trusted employee,” he said.

>> Iosue responds with letter to Fisher <<

Iosue said he does not consider if it should have been handled differently.

“I will not speculate what direction City Council would have taken if additional information were provided or circumstances were different but am confident based on the independent review by our outside counsel that the Hilliard police conducted a professional and thorough investigation,” he said.

City Council moved into executive session after 10 p.m. Jan. 28 for the stated reason of “conferences with an attorney for council concerning disputes involving council that are the subject of pending or imminent court action,” citing section 2.10(1)(c) of the city charter. Creedon was present.

After adjourning from executive session, Iosue said council members were satisfied with the investigation timeline Fisher had provided in his Jan. 22 letter and City Council would forgo a final report from Creedon. City Council members voted unanimously to end the inquiry.

“Truth has and always will prevail, and we saw that demonstrated during (the Jan. 28) council meeting,” Fisher said. “I appreciate the sentiments offered by some members of council who voiced their opposition to this attack – which one councilman rightly called ‘a witch hunt.’ As expected, the facts proved these claims to be false.

“We’re grateful for the support of our community – who rallied behind us, knowing the character of this organization – and we look forward continuing to protect and serve the Hilliard community with integrity.”

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo

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Previous story:

Hilliard City Council on Jan. 28 decided to end its inquiry using outside legal counsel to examine how the Hilliard Division of Police carried out its criminal investigation of former Hilliard Recreation and Parks Department deputy director Heather Ernst, but fireworks still went off in council chambers at the Hilliard Municipal Building.

The 7-0 decision was rendered after an executive session that followed a tense exchange between council member Les Carrier and police Chief Bobby Fisher.

During that exchange, council member Nathan Painter interjected to call the inquiry a “witch hunt.” Carrier had supported the inquiry, calling it "necessary."

An overflow gallery, including police officers, applauded, prompting council President Albert Iosue to admonish the room.

Earlier in the meeting, Carrier had revealed why he and his peers launched the inquiry using Bill Creedon, an attorney with Scott Scriven LLC, with whom the city contracted.

Carrier read aloud text messages he had received from Curtis Baker, a former Hilliard sergeant who now is deputy chief of the Reynoldsburg Division of Police.

The messages alleged Hilliard police had not done enough to investigate tips regarding Ernst's irregular finances when they were received, Carrier said. Hilliard investigators were tipped in late 2015 and 2016, according to Fisher, but Baker's messages to him alleged police might have been aware in 2014, Carrier said.

However, City Council also voted to make public a letter to Creedon from Baker in which Baker outlines the concerns he shared with Carrier. In that letter, Baker wrote that he believed the investigation began in 2015, not 2014.

“I’m shocked you are attacking the credibility (of the police division),” Fisher said.

He called the information Carrier shared about the investigation “fabrications.”

After adjourning from executive session, Iosue said council members were satisfied with the investigation timeline Fisher provided Jan. 22 and City Council would forgo a final report from Creedon.

Scott Scriven LLC has not submitted an invoice for work already performed, council clerk Lynne Fasone said.

Ernst, 48, on Oct. 3 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. She was sentenced to a year in prison.

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.

This story will updated with more details at ThisWeekNEWS.com/Hilliard. Videos are posted above.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo