Deal set in ex-schools chief Bennett’s ethics case

(WTHI Photo, file)
(WTHI Photo, file)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The State Ethics Commission is set to review a proposed settlement Thursday in the ethics case against former Indiana Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett.

Inspector General David Thomas filed charges last November alleging Bennett violated state ethics laws by using public employees and state resources for “political campaign fundraising, responding to a political opponent’s assertions, scheduling campaign meetings, scheduling campaign telephone calls, and/or other political and/or personal activity.”

Both Thomas and Bennett’s defense attorney, Jason Barclay, declined to discuss the details of the settlement before Thursday’s commission meeting. It will be up to the five-member ethics commission to decide whether to approve the settlement.

An Associated Press investigation found that Bennett and his staff had kept copies of Republican Party fundraising lists on state computers. One list, dubbed “The Big Hitter List” included contact information for mega-donor Christel DeHaan and a suggestion that Bennett press her for more money.

Bennett secretly changed Indiana’s school-grading system in 2012 to benefit DeHaan’s Indianapolis charter school, Christel House Academy. Bennett resigned as Florida’s schools chief last August, shortly after the AP published emails showing his efforts to benefit DeHaan.

In both the ethics case and the grade-change scandal, Bennett has said he did nothing wrong. Bennett hired two of the state’s most prominent defense attorneys, Larry Mackey and Jason Barclay, to represent him in the ethics case. Mackey previously led the prosecution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Barclay rewrote the ethics laws in 2005 that Bennett is accused of breaking.

Mackey has become the state’s most prominent white-collar criminal defense attorney, defending convicted Ponzi-schemer Tim Durham at the start of his case and successfully defending developer John Bales against fraud charges last year.

It is unclear if anyone else is investigating Bennett. A spokeswoman for Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry, whose office handles prosecutions of state officeholders, did not return a request for comment Monday. Tim Horty, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett, said he could neither confirm nor deny any federal investigation of Bennett.

“We are aware of the IG’s investigation and the existence of a report,” Horty said.

It is against the law for public officials to use state resources for campaign work. Almost 30 years ago, former Schools Superintendent Harold Negley was indicted on charges of ghost employment and misuse of state resources for having his employees perform campaign work. He submitted a guilty plea in 1985, and was fined $1,000 and forced to do 2,000 hours of community service.

In one email from Bennett, dated August 28, 2012, he asked then-Chief of Staff Heather Neal, then-Deputy Chief of Staff Dale Chu and other top staffers to dissect a campaign speech from his opponent, Democrat Glenda Ritz. Ritz upset Bennett in the 2012 election a few months later.

“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.

Bennett’s calendar also listed more than 100 entries of “campaign calls” during the day, although it is not clear if he made the calls from inside the Statehouse — a violation of state law — or somewhere else.

Bennett’s former Communications Director Cam Savage downloaded one of the fundraising lists to a Statehouse computer in 2009. In other emails, Bennett’s staff talked about doing campaign work during normal work hours. Neal resigned as Gov. Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist two weeks after the grade-changing scandal was uncovered and took a job with Savage at the campaign firm Limestone Strategies.

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