INDIANAPOLIS | Republican Tony Bennett improperly used taxpayer-funded equipment to support his unsuccessful 2012 re-election campaign for state superintendent of public instruction, according to a complaint filed Thursday by Indiana's ethics watchdog.
Inspector General David Thomas alleged that Bennett violated state ethics rules when he used state-owned computers for campaign fundraising and scheduling, responding to a political opponent and other political and personal activities not authorized by the Department of Education.
The State Ethics Commission agreed there is probable cause to sustain Thomas' allegations. A hearing on the complaint is scheduled for Jan. 9.
If three of the five commissioners determine by a preponderance of the evidence that Bennett violated the state's code of ethics, the former schools chief could be fined and potentially barred from being employed by the state.
The commission also is authorized to share its findings with county and federal prosecutors for potential criminal sanctions.
It is a felony under Indiana's "ghost employment" law for a state official to assign nonstate tasks, such as campaign activities, to a state employee during regular working hours. A conviction is punishable by up to three years in prison.
The Associated Press reported in September that Bennett sent an email Aug. 28, 2012, directing top Department of Education staffers to view an online video of Democrat Glenda Ritz, Bennett's campaign opponent, and "scrub it for every inaccuracy and utterance of stupidity that comes out of her mouth."
He also reportedly maintained campaign fundraising lists on state computers that included notes on how to reach Dean White, the Crown Point billionaire who has given millions to Hoosier Republican candidates over the years, including $210,000 to Bennett.
In a statement issued Thursday, Bennett said he will show that his actions in office were consistent with state law and ethics rules.
"Throughout my time in public service I made every effort to be cognizant of and to follow state rules and guidelines for elected officials," Bennett said. "I understand no conclusions have been made in this matter and I look forward to working with the ethics commission and the inspector general's office to demonstrate proper adherence to state rules and guidelines."
Ritz declined to comment on the inspector general's complaint. Despite being outspent nearly 5-1, Ritz defeated Bennett 53 percent to 47 percent in the Nov. 6, 2012, election and took over the Department of Education in January.
Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said the complaint shows Bennett "led a culture of corruption by misleading Hoosiers and abusing the trust of the office to which he was elected."
"Hoosiers should know their state government is working in the best interest of the public, not politics," Zody said.
The ethics filing caps a fairly awful year for Bennett, who was once a rising star in the national education reform and school choice movements.
After losing his re-election bid, Bennett was appointed Florida schools chief in December. His rocky tenure there ended in August when it was discovered Bennett changed the grades of 165 Indiana schools prior to the 2012 election, in part to boost the rating of an Indianapolis charter school sponsored by one of his top campaign donors.
Bennett this month moved back to Indiana from Tallahassee, Fla. He's living in Floyd County, near Louisville, Ky., where he worked as an assistant school superintendent prior to his 2008 election as Indiana schools chief.