Small town led by comedian tries to recover from 'lost year'

AP News
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Posted: Mar 04, 2017 11:30 AM
Small town led by comedian tries to recover from 'lost year'

HILLSBORO, Ohio (AP) — A local newspaper called it this little Ohio city's "lost year."

It was a year of subpoenas, search warrants, depositions and whispers. Hillsboro's mayor, a standup comedian long before he became a politician, was the focus of it all.

Drew Hastings, who has appeared on Comedy Central and "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno, dubbed it "The Year of Living Strangerously," playing off the 1982 Mel Gibson-Sigourney Weaver movie "The Year of Living Dangerously."

The police chief who thought Hastings should have been ousted quit soon after the mayor's acquittal last November on four felony charges alleging official misconduct. The safety and services director, who was a prosecution witness against Hastings, was fired.

People in the city of some 6,600, nearly 60 miles east of Cincinnati, use words such as "divided" and "fractured" to describe the impact of the probes that began in December 2015.

"It was hell ... very stressful," said Debbie Sansone, the mayor's executive assistant, whose home was visited last year by investigators who seized her and her husband's personal computers and related items after search warrants were carried out around the city building.

"I'm sure there are hard feelings across the board," said Justin Harsha, a councilman and owner of a monument business his family started in Hillsboro in 1854. "Basically, everything was kind of put on hold, everything was just up in the air. Now we're just trying to move forward and put the past in the past."

Hastings, served with search warrants both at his farm outside the city and apartment in town, had everything from the contents of his refrigerator to those of his and his wife's underwear drawers examined, photographed and recorded.

Investigators from the sheriff's department and Ohio auditor's office were trying to prove he falsified his residence, illegally obtained a $500 vacant building fee refund, and improperly used the city's trash bins.

Hastings called it a "witch hunt," and blamed the "established political structure" when indicted last July.

Hastings, who settled in Hillsboro a decade ago for a better respite from life on the road than Los Angeles had been, is a Republican Donald Trump supporter who was something of a smaller-scale forerunner of the president. He's an entertainer and property investor who challenged the political establishment and won, and he scoffs at political correctness or niceties, with blunt, sometimes profane, language.

"I like Drew, but sometimes he should rephrase things before he says them," said Joe Mahan, president of the Uptown Business Association.

The investigations began soon after Hastings won re-election to a second four-year term with nearly 60 percent of the vote in November 2015. Supporters praised the spruced-up downtown and improved city finances; foes didn't like his brash, heavy-handed style, and saw signs of ethical conflicts.

The extensive investigation that resulted, led by a special prosecutor from the Ohio auditor's office, compiled volumes of investigatory files but, in the end, not convincing evidence of a crime.

"The jury did not believe we met the standard of proof, and we accept that," auditor's spokesman Benjamin Marrison said in response to a question about the costs and time spent on the case.

Investigative expenses were relatively slight. Hillsboro is driving distance from the Columbus capital, and expense reports obtained through a public records request show that the few times local accommodations were needed, a budget hotel and low-priced restaurants were used.

"Besides, the potential cost of prosecution should not deter auditors and investigators from seeking justice," Marrison added.

Hastings called his acquittal "a victory for the little guy" while adding he expects his opponents will simply change their tactics. He jokes in his routine about getting served with an indictment while waiting for his Bob Evans restaurant order, but overall, he said; "I haven't really found that much funny about it."

Times-Gazette Publisher Gary Abernathy pondered in a recent column whether Hastings could be more helpful to his adopted hometown as a private citizen. Hastings acknowledged that he often faces perceptions of ethics conflicts when he pushes for downtown improvements that could help his property values.

The case's aftermath is a time to consider change, he said. He suggests discussion about moving local government to a system with a city manager and other professional administrators to reduce local political intrigue.

"I think our community realizes that just me being exonerated didn't fix our problems," he said. "It's more endemic."

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For some of his other recent stories: http://bigstory.ap.org/content/dan-sewell