Ethics panel OKs state officers using gov't equipment for campaigning

Former Superintendent Tony Bennett fined $5,000 for not first giving himself permission
2014-07-10T12:18:00Z 2014-07-11T09:12:10Z Ethics panel OKs state officers using gov't equipment for campaigningDan Carden dan.carden@nwi.com, (317) 637-9078 nwitimes.com
July 10, 2014 12:18 pm  • 

INDIANAPOLIS | 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 the conclusion of an inspector general's report approved Thursday by the State Ethics Commission, which imposed a $5,000 fine on Republican Tony Bennett, the former state superintendent of public instruction, not for campaigning using state resources but for failing to first give himself written permission.

Bennett agreed to pay the fine and said in a statement he hopes his case will serve as an example to other Indiana officials.

"I've learned a valuable lesson that I can offer to others, not as an excuse, but as an explanation," Bennett said. "Without well-drafted policies in place that expressly allow the limited use of state property for political activity by elected officials, all present and future Indiana elected officials are at risk of inadvertent violations."

Indiana Inspector General David Thomas determined that during Bennett's 2012 re-election bid, he held joint staff meetings between Department of Education employees and his campaign team in Bennett's Statehouse office.

Bennett also used state-owned and maintained calendar software to track official and campaign events on a consolidated calendar, as well as received and responded to political emails from his state account, according to the inspector general's report.

In addition, Bennett directed DOE staff following his defeat to compile a personal contact list that he could use in his new job as Florida Education Commissioner. The final list included contacts from three campaign lists "The 5000," "The Big Hitter List" and the "Red Meat List" that were stored on a state server, the report said.

Thomas found those uses of state property violated a DOE policy Bennett signed upon taking office in 2009 expressly prohibiting any user from employing department equipment for political activity.

But Thomas noted that Bennett could have avoided an ethics violation by not signing that policy statement and instead authorizing himself to use state property as he wished.

That's because the seven state officers — the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state auditor, state treasurer and state superintendent — are not subject to prohibitions on state employees engaging in political activity on state time, Thomas said.

It's not known whether Indianapolis U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett, a Democrat who served as Indiana secretary of state from 1989-94, is investigating Bennett, whose actions appear similar to those of former Lake County Surveyor George Van Til.

Van Til resigned in December after pleading guilty to federal charges relating to his directing surveyor's office employees to engage in political activity on county time and using county computer equipment for campaign purposes.

A spokeswoman for Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry, a Democrat, said he declined to file charges against Bennett after receiving the inspector general's report.

House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, blasted Bennett's ethics settlement as a whitewash symptomatic of Indiana's Republican-dominated state government.

"Everything gets decided away from the public's eye, and no one is satisfied … except, of course, for the public officials who ride into the sunset with better things waiting for them in the next town," Pelath said.

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