Video and photos show a Lexington city councilwoman withdrawing most of the $5,000 that she is accused of diverting by getting payroll checks issued in the name of one of her former employees, according to court documents.
Sasha Love Higgins has been charged with three felonies: second-degree forgery, theft by deception and identity theft, according to police. The investigation began with a report of identity theft in early January. If convicted, Higgins could face up to five years in prison.
Higgins attended Thursday’s council meeting, but did not speak to the media.
Higgins was the general manager at a Hampton Inn in Lexington when Richard Manning, the husband of former hotel employee Maricela Gomez de Manning, filed a fraud complaint, according to court documents. The two had discovered that seven paychecks had been issued in her name after her last day of work in July 2016.
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Richard Manning then called Higgins, according to court documents. During the call, Higgins reportedly admitted to using the payroll account. Manning recorded the call and turned it over to police.
Pillar Hotels and Resorts, the parent company of Hampton Inn, confirmed in January that seven paychecks had been issued in Maricela Gomez de Manning’s name after she left the company, according to court documents. The gross amount of the seven checks was $5,709.88, which totaled $4,226.33 after taxes. The hotel also documented that the work time in the payroll system for the checks was entered by Higgins.
Higgins is accused of emailing the hotel’s corporate human resources and asking it to direct the money from the paychecks into a MetaBank account, and then using the money from that account for her benefit, according to court documents. Attached to the email was a form with Maricela Gomez de Manning’s forged signature. Her name was misspelled on that form, court documents said.
Records showed that $4,226 had been deposited in the MetaBank account but only $1.50 remained.
“The police department obtained video and still photos depicting a female/black subject receiving the funds and was able to positively identify the person to be Sasha Higgins,” the complaint said.
“After reviewing the case with the county attorney’s office, summonses were issued for Ms. Higgins for all charges,” police spokeswoman Brenna Angel said in a statement Thursday morning.
Higgins is scheduled to be arraigned Feb. 28.
Higgins said in a post on a Facebook page for the Masterson Station neighborhood that she looked forward to “working hard to clear my name.”
“I was recently given a citation to appear before court and address the details of this case,” Higgins wrote. “I have retained an attorney to assist me with this.”
William Davis, a lawyer for Higgins, initially criticized police for not disclosing specifics or court documents to support the charges. “We are completely in the dark. … I implore your patience and understanding and show your support for Sasha Love Higgins,” he said. Those documents were filed later Thursday morning in court.
Davis said that Higgins will plead not guilty to all charges on Feb. 28. He said he will ask for a preliminary hearing, where the police will have to give evidence to support the charges.
Higgins upset incumbent Shevawn Akers in the November election for the council seat representing the 2nd District. That district includes the Leestown Road and Georgetown Road areas. Higgins had never held public office before being elected in November. The race is nonpartisan, but Higgins is registered as a Republican and had the support of many statewide Republicans including Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton. Hampton attended the Urban County Council’s swearing-in ceremony in December.
An assistant manager at the Hampton Inn said he couldn’t comment on Higgins, including whether Higgins was still employed at the hotel. Higgins council website still lists her as employed by the Hampton Inn.
Higgins can remain on the council while the charges are pending. . A council committee is rewriting the ethics ordinance, which currently doesn’t address what happens to city officials if they are charged while in office.
Allison Connelly, chairwoman of the Fayette County Ethics Commission, said she could not address specifics of any case. But the current ordinance doesn’t have a general misconduct provision. That means even if Higgins were convicted, there is no provision in the city’s ethics ordinance that would allow for her to be censured or punished.
“In general, any complaint has to relate directly to the official discharge of duties,” Connelly said.
Councilwoman Angela Evans, a former ethics commission member and a lawyer, is overseeing the ethics ordinance overhaul. Evans said a provision that would cover general misconduct, which could include criminal charges not related to an elected official’s duties, is being considered as part of the update.
Evans said Thursday that she hopes to return to a council committee in July with more details.
Higgins is the first sitting city council member in recent memory to be charged with felonies. The last was Edgar Wallace. Wallace was convicted of two misdemeanor drug-related charges in April 1984 but was originally charged with a felony.
Wallace served out his council term even after he was convicted.
Higgins’ former opponent, Akers, said she hoped the criminal charges will be resolved quickly for the sake of constituents in the 2nd District.
“Like many residents in the 2nd District, I am very disappointed by this news and these charges filed by the Lexington Police Department,” Akers said. “It’s my hope that the courts act expeditiously in this criminal matter so the 2nd District council office can get back to serving constituents, without this level of distraction.”
In her campaign, Higgins pledged to increase communication and transparency with 2nd District constituents. She also touted her business experience and her fluency in other languages — including Spanish — as a plus.