Bennett wins in ethics settlement

Score one for Tony Bennett. The former Indiana superintendent of public instruction not only got off easy for violating state ethics rules, he also got out in front of the news coverage, almost making it seem he was exonerated.

Bennett agreed to pay a $5,000 fine for using state property for political purposes during his unsuccessful 2012 re-election campaign. A report by Inspector General David Thomas said Bennett tracked political events on his state Outlook calendar and used state email for election-related communications, and his staff kept lists of donors on a state server.

The report said Bennett didn’t violate the ethics code by tweaking Indiana’s A-to-F school grading system so a charter school would get an A instead of a C. The school was founded and run by a prominent campaign donor to Bennett and other Republicans.

News of the ethics settlement broke Wednesday when someone leaked a copy to Stephanie Simon of Politico. That someone was almost certainly Bennett or a member of his camp. He’s the only character in this drama with a national profile and an interest in Politico’s influential readership.

And there’s a pretty good irony to that. Bennett’s supporters blame a leak from the staff of his successor, Glenda Ritz, for disclosing the departmental emails that led to the ethics investigation. A plausible interpretation for the political attacks being made against Ritz is that they’re payback for having derailed Bennett’s public-sector career.

Bennett also got out ahead of the story with a news release Wednesday, a day before the State Ethics Commission approved the settlement. He didn’t apologize and essentially insisted he had done nothing wrong. The lesson he learned: Elected officials should be careful to craft looser ethics policies.

The grade-change issue

Referring to the grade-change controversy, Bennett said the inspector general’s report “should bring that matter to a final, conclusive end.” Both Politico and the Indy Star said the report cleared Bennett of allegations that he manipulated the grading system to benefit a political donor.

I wouldn’t go that far. Thomas found the grade-system actions didn’t violate the state ethics code. But Bennett – or his staff, acting at his direction – clearly did manipulate the system to improve the grade awarded to Christel House Academy. The emails that Tom LoBianco of the AP disclosed last year make that abundantly clear.

The inspector general notes that an investigation commissioned by state legislative leaders found the grading system changes were “plausible” and were applied evenly to all schools. But neither that investigation nor the inspector general addressed Bennett’s motivation.

Like Bennett, I’m ready to close the book on this chapter, but not if it requires rewriting history.

Ethics? What ethics?

Probably the most startling conclusion in the inspector general’s report is that Bennett, in fact, could have adopted policies that allowed him and Department of Education employees to engage in political activity while on the job, using state equipment and at taxpayer expense.

Thomas notes that the ethics code prohibits using state personnel, property or funds for activities that aren’t state business “unless the use is expressly permitted by a general written agency, departmental or institutional policy or regulation.” Bennett suggested, in his news release, that his only mistake was to not adopt a department policy that allowed taxpayer-funded political activity.

As Dan Carden of the Times of Northwest Indiana wrote, ethics officials ruled “the seven statewide elected officials can use state property for campaign purposes, so long as they approve a policy statement authorizing themselves to do so.”

That’s just bizarre. Let’s hope reporters covering state government have begun to file blanket public-records requests to uncover policies that give such a green light to corruption.

Chasing away the ghosts

Also somewhat questionable was Politico’s statement that the grade-change issue was “more explosive” than the other. As LoBianco suggested in his email stories, the truly explosive question was whether Bennett committed a crime.

State criminal code in effect in 2012 says: “A public servant who knowingly or intentionally assigns to an employee under the public servant’s supervision any duties not related to the operation of the governmental entity that the public servant serves commits ghost employment, a Class D felony.”

Did Bennett cross that line when, for example, he asked staff to watch a video of a Ritz campaign speech and “scrub it for every inaccuracy and utterance of stupidity that comes out of her mouth”? Or was that a legitimate task related to state policy?

The inspector general says he shared his report with the office of Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry, a Democrat, where “criminal prosecution has been declined.”

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