Hilliard leaders have settled their civil lawsuit against Heather H. Ernst, the former deputy director of the city’s recreation and parks department who was convicted in 2018 of theft in office and attempted tampering with records.
The city settled with Ernst, 49, for $350,000.
But the recovery represents only a portion of what was believed to have been stolen, according to several officials.
“It’s probably 10 times that (amount), but that’s what we got,” Hilliard City Council member Les Carrier said.
“I think that’s all we’re going to get (from Ernst), but the agreement has enough flexibility that we can monitor her finances and assets and have an opportunity to recover more in the future,” council member Kelly McGivern said.
Council members, after meeting in a closed executive session for two hours Jan. 27, voted 6-0 in the regular council meeting to settle the lawsuit that was filed almost two years ago. Council Vice President Pete Marsh was absent.
The civil lawsuit, which had been filed against Ernst in March 2018 and amended a few months later to include her husband, Moses, as a co-defendant, was scheduled for a trial beginning Feb. 18 in the courtroom of Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jenifer French.
The city will ask for the civil case to be dismissed as part of the settlement, said David Ball, director of communications for Hilliard.
The $350,000 settlement includes the $271,898 plus court costs of $268 that Ernst was ordered to pay after she pleaded guilty in October 2018 to one count of theft in office, a third-degree felony, and one count of attempted tampering with records, a fourth-degree felony.
Court proceedings had determined $271,898 had been stolen for “lifestyle spending,” Jeff Blake, an assistant prosecutor for the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office, had said at Ernst’s plea hearing.
But Ernst had been accused by Hilliard investigators of stealing almost twice that amount, nearly $500,000 in daily admission fees from the city’s two pool facilities from May 2013 to fall 2017.
She was sentenced to 12 months in prison Nov. 16, 2018, and began serving her sentence Jan, 2, 2019, according to records from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. She was released Dec. 20 from the Ohio Reformatory for Women, according to records.
Ernst has “no post-release control,” said Sara French, deputy communications chief for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, ending the criminal case against her.
The settlement brings closure to the case that began when Ernst resigned in November 2017 amid an investigation by the Hilliard Division of Police.
“This settlement closes another chapter (and) benefits Hilliard by avoiding significant additional litigation costs associated with going to trial,” Council President Andy Teater said.
By November, the city had spent $476,482 on audits and legal expenses related to Ernst, Ball said.
Ernst is credited for $162,082 from her Ohio Public Employees Retirement System pension the city has recovered, Ball said.
At the time of her resignation in late 2017, Ernst was being paid an annual salary of $88,281 and had benefits valued at $43,155, according to the city.
In addition, approximately $40,000 in “personal assets” belonging to Heather and Moses Ernst will be surrendered to Hilliard, according to Christopher Burch, special legal counsel to Hilliard City Council.
Ernst will be required to pay the remaining balance, approximately $148,000, “from any future earnings and assets,” Ball said.
Moses Ernest is a party to the settlement but neither the settlement nor the criminal findings against his wife place any culpability on him, Ball said.
Moses Ernst was represented by attorney Jonathan Tyack during negotiations to reach the settlement but Heather Ernst was not represented by an attorney, Ball said.
ThisWeek has left messages for Tyack and has been unable to contact the Ernsts for comment.
Hilliard also has received a $199,000 payment from its insurance carrier, Argo Group, to compensate for the theft committed by Ernst, Ball said.
When combined with the amount already recovered from Ernst and the $40,000 it will receive, about $401,000 has been recovered on behalf of the city concerning the Ernst matter, Ball said.
Still, council members said it would be but a fraction of what might have been stolen by Ernst, who had served as the deputy director of the recreation and parks department since 2012 and was a city employee for 24 years.
A forensic audit released last year on Hilliard’s finances dating back to 1996 revealed “negative anomalies” in the millions of dollars, according to city officials. Investigators also had arrived at $500,000 missing from pool receipts during the timeframe of 3 1/2 years initially examined.
Although the criminal and civil cases against Ernst are closed, a related case remains active.
In October 2019, Hilliard filed a civil lawsuit against its previous auditing firm, Dayton-based Clark Schaefer Hackett.
“The suit alleges the company failed to identify material weaknesses in the city’s cash-handling policies that could have prevented the theft of significant funds by Ernst over a period of several years,” Ball said.
According to the common-pleas court records, a trial is scheduled Oct. 19.
The same week it was filed, Clark Schafer Hackett CPA and president Kerry W. Roe said the lawsuit is “a misguided waste of taxpayer dollars (that) represents an effort by the city to deflect responsibility for its failure to oversee and monitor the activities of one of its own employees.”
ThisWeek has left a message for Roe seeking additional comment.
Hilliard City Council has reached a settlement with Heather H. Ernst, the former deputy director of the city’s recreation and parks department who was convicted in 2018 of theft in office of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The settlement for $350,000 includes the amount Ernst was ordered to pay after she pleaded guilty in a criminal trial in November 2018.
She was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $271,898, plus court costs of $268, for a total of $272,166, which prosecutors and Ernst’s attorneys agreed upon as part of the settlement in the criminal trial.
Ernst entered a guilty plea Oct. 3, 2018, 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 12 months in prison Nov. 16, 2018, and began serving her sentence Jan, 2, 2019, according to records from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
A civil trial that was scheduled to begin Feb. 18 will not be necessary, and the case will be dismissed, according to city spokesman David Ball.
Check ThisWeekNEWS.com/Hilliard for updates to this story.