Ethics panel approves $5,000 fine against Bennett

 

Associated Press

Indiana's State Ethics Commission voted unanimously Thursday to fine former state school Superintendent Tony Bennett $5,000 for breaking ethics rules by using state resources to conduct campaign work.

The panel approved without discussion a settlement reached between Bennett's defense team and Indiana Inspector General David Thomas.

After the hearing, Bennett's lawyer Larry Mackey said the lesson was that Bennett should have re-written Indiana Department of Education policy to allow for campaign work on state equipment, and then he could have avoided the fine altogether.

"An important part of the reason we're here today is that Dr. Bennett as an officeholder, an elected officeholder, had every right to engage in political activity, unlike state employees. And that's the important message here," Mackey said. "But he has to follow the rules. And the rules are, write a policy if you're going to use state computers to do any political activity, even if you're an officeholder."

The settlement showed that Bennett's state and campaign staffs met at his Statehouse office to coordinate scheduling using state software and computers during his unsuccessful 2012 re-election bid. State investigators also determined that campaign fundraising lists found on state servers had been transferred there by accident in January 2013 by one of Bennett's state staffers.

Investigators determined those actions violated the Indiana Department of Education's ethics rules.

"Limited personal uses of the agency's computer systems for political activity on my part would have been permitted if I had implemented policies that expressly permitted those uses. I did not and the failure to implement those policies is no one's fault but my own," Bennett said in a statement released by his defense team Wednesday night.

Bennett, a Republican, also said that he hoped report marks a "final, conclusive end" to questions about the grading formula changes he made. State investigators said they could not find evidence of a direct quid pro quo.

Bennett resigned as Florida's schools chief in August 2013 after The Associated Press published emails showing changes he made in Indiana's school-grading formula that benefited the Indianapolis charter school founded by one of his donors, Christel DeHaan. Bennett and his staff changed the grading formula twice in secret to raise the DeHaan school's grade from a "C" to an "A". Other schools benefited as well, but only DeHaan's benefited from both changes.

Bennett claimed "exoneration" last September when a pair of legislative investigators determined that he had applied the changes benefiting DeHaan's charter school to other schools as well. But the report's authors said their effort neither condemned nor vindicated Bennett.

A spokeswoman for Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry confirmed the office received the evidence compiled by state investigators but declined prosecution in the case.

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett, whose office investigates public corruption cases, would neither confirm nor deny any investigation of Bennett.

The seven-page report from the inspector general does not address questions of possible ghost employment by Bennett's staff. One email sent from Bennett to his top staff in 2012 asked them to dissect a campaign appearance by his then-opponent, Democratic schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz. Another email from then-Chief of Staff Heather Neal discussed seeking campaign finance reports on state time.

It's also unclear whether all of the campaign lists were transferred to state computers after the November 2012 election, as Bennett said in the settlement. A copy of "The 5000" campaign list was created in August 2009 by Cam Savage, then Bennett's state communications director, and provided to the AP in a folder with numerous other lists dealing with the Department of Education, including cellphone numbers for top staff and media contacts.

State Democratic Party Chairman John Zody called Bennett's fine "a slap on the wrist." Indiana House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, criticized the ethics commission for letting Bennett "cut a deal in private that enables him to get off for the price of a used car."

Indiana's inspector general was appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence and reports its findings to the State Ethics Commission, which is also appointed by Indiana's governor.

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