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Indiana State Ethics Commission
James Clevenger, Plymouth attorney
Priscilla D. Keith, adjunct professor, McKinney School of Law at IUPUI
Bob Jamison, retired FBI agent in new Albany
Daryl Yost, director of the Certified Technology Park at Fort Wayne’s Northeast Indiana Innovation Center
Peter Nugent, Indianapolis attorney
Editorial

Clearing the air: State ethics board has chance for strong action

Bennett
Woodruff

How can appallingly unethical situations repeatedly be overlooked in Indiana state government?

The State Ethics Commission’s agenda today includes a proposed settlement with former schools chief Tony Bennett. The terms have not been disclosed, but it’s reportedly a $5,000 fine and a pass on charges he manipulated state data to benefit a campaign donor. The other charges represent a serious violation of the public trust. Email correspondence obtained by the Associated Press suggests Bennett used the state’s computer system to conduct political operations and that he and staff members waged an election campaign against challenger Glenda Ritz on state time.

“Below is a link to Glenda’s forum in Bloomington. It is 1:35 minutes. I would ask that people watch this and scrub it for every inaccuracy and utterance of stupidity that comes out of her mouth,” Bennett wrote in an email to top staff members.

Indiana law prohibits state employees from engaging in political activity while on duty. They also are prohibited from working on anything outside their official job duties while on the clock, or ordering others to do so.

After the emails came to light in August 2013, the GOP administration moved slowly. After Inspector General David Thomas filed charges in November, an ethics commission hearing set for January was pushed to May, then to August. In the meantime, Bennett hired two of the top defense attorneys in the state. Word of the settlement surfaced only with release of the agenda for today’s meeting.

Some would be eager to consider Bennett’s electoral loss sufficient punishment, but ghost employment is a felony under Indiana statute, punishable by up to three years in prison. Moreover, law-and-order conservatives are the first to insist prosecution is a deterrent to crime. What does it say if an elected statewide official is allowed to slip away with few consequences?

Bennett’s culpability is important to determine for another reason: The ethical standards he likely breached have a strong bearing on the integrity of his work as state superintendent. The ethics charges suggest a pattern of misbehavior when considered along with his frantic rush to change a school letter grade for a charter school operated by Christel DeHaan, a wealthy campaign donor.

Gov. Mike Pence, his appointed State Board of Education and GOP legislators who backed Bennett and continue to push his school-privatization agenda would surely like for the ghost employment charges to slip quietly away. Association with the allegations tarnishes their own work – and it should.

Likewise, the administration would like to see Troy Woodruff, chief of staff for the Indiana Department of Transportation, slip quietly away. He is asking the ethics commission to declare no conflict exists with a position he seeks with an INDOT contractor. Woodruff wants to become vice president of an engineering firm, RQAW, with which he personally signed contracts totaling more than $500,000.

The highway official also is the focus of another slow-moving investigation – one involving nepotism and conflicts of interest in land purchases made by INDOT. The Indianapolis Star uncovered deals that paid $1.86 million to Woodruff’s uncle and cousins, who later bought land from Woodruff and his immediate family at higher than market value.

The ethics commission measures are just one source of the malodorous atmosphere within state government. There is the legislation spiked by a powerful lawmaker with direct financial ties to the bill. Coveted board appointments awarded to out-of-state campaign donors. A six-figure job created for a top official who extended special accommodations to a public board member. Legislators dining and golfing with former lawmakers whose lobbying services they recommended.

The ethics commission should begin to clear the air today. It should reject any settlement that allows a state official to harm the public trust. It can stop the revolving door between the executive branch and its business partners.

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