INDIANAPOLIS — Attorney General Curtis Hill Jr. appears to have violated an Indiana ethics law prohibiting state officeholders from using their names or likenesses in audio, video or newspaper advertisements paid for with state funds.
A new 15-second video ad promoting the attorney general's unclaimed property division includes screen text at both the beginning and end of the commercial that reads, "Office of Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill."
Under the 2010 ethics statute, state officeholders are permitted to use the title of their office in connection with advertisements pertaining to official business.
But officeholders explicitly are prohibited from using their names.
The law states: "A state officer may not use the state officer's name or likeness in a communication paid for entirely or in part with appropriations made by the General Assembly, regardless of the source of the money."
The statute does provide exceptions for a communication made by the governor concerning public health or safety; or a communication pertaining to a "compelling public policy" issue for which spending is approved by the State Budget Agency, on the recommendation of the State Budget Committee.
A review of State Budget Committee records shows that Hill, since taking office last January, has not requested or received approval for a personalized ad from the five-member panel that provides continuing legislative oversight of state spending while the General Assembly is not in session.
State Budget Director Jason Dudich, who leads the State Budget Agency, also confirmed to The Times that he has not been contacted by the Republican attorney general to authorize spending on any ad featuring Hill's name.
"They have not come before the Budget Committee in the year and a half that I've been there, and there's been no request directly to me and none of my staff have brought anything to me at this point," Dudich said.
The commercial that features Hill's name highlights the significant number of lost or forgotten financial assets that have been transferred by banks, retailers and other entities to the attorney general's office.
It asks viewers, "Know any Bobs?" Then it points out that 26,717 people named Bob have unclaimed property listed on the IndianaUnclaimed.gov website, and encourages people to search the site to see if a Bob they know is on it.
The web address is on the screen for approximately one-fifth of the ad's running time. Simultaneously on the screen is the attorney general's office logo and the words: "Office of Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill; Unclaimed Property Division."
The ad, produced by The Basement marketing firm in Indianapolis, aired at least once Aug. 7 on Indianapolis television.
According to the attorney general's contract with the agency, unclaimed-property ad purchases are set to total $563,000 between Aug. 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019.
The current state budget appropriates $1.3 million to the attorney general's unclaimed-property division for personal services, such as employee wages, and $2.4 million for other operating expenses, such as advertising and promotion.
Attempts to reach Hill's press staff for comment were delayed Friday while they attended "Curtis Hill Day" events at the Indiana State Fair. Later, Hill spokesman Chris Proffitt said in a statement that the attorney general's office appreciated the ad issue being brought to its attention.
"In reviewing the ad regarding Indiana unclaimed property, we acknowledge that there is a potential concern regarding use of the attorney general’s name as it applies to communicating government events and programs," Proffitt said.
"We are in the process of having the ads taken down until we can properly review rules applicable to this particular advertisement and the process in which it was developed and approved.
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"If we determine that this ad is not in compliance in any manner, we will take appropriate corrective action to discontinue the ad and address our compliance protocols for such advertisement of government programs."
Former AG did not use his name in ads
A review of publicly available unclaimed-property commercials produced during the 2009-17 tenure of Republican Attorney General Greg Zoeller use only "Office of the Indiana Attorney General" on the screen, and do not include Zoeller's name.
Staci Schneider, who served as Zoeller's chief of staff, said the office made a deliberate decision not to put Zoeller's name in those ads.
"That's why we left his name off, because of that statute," Schneider said. "We just focused on the fact that it was coming from a government agency, the attorney general's office, and then that division."
Similarly, current Secretary of State Connie Lawson has taken affirmative action to comply with the statute that she helped craft as a Republican state senator from Danville.
Lawson last December personally appeared before the State Budget Committee to request approval to use video communications on free social media platforms to announce voter registration deadlines, warn Hoosiers of financial scams and promote business registration through her office's INBiz web portal.
She said each of those are compelling public policy reasons for her to personally appear in a video, and even though no state funds would be spent in connection with her messages, she wanted to obtain committee approval out of an abundance of caution.
"In the Indiana Code, there is language regarding video, and we just wanted to make sure that we were OK to do a social media video," Lawson said. "The law does not address social media, because social media was not a thing when the bill was passed."
The committee unanimously approved Lawson's request.
Lawson's concern also might have stemmed from the fact that the statute, informally dubbed the "Rokita Rule," was enacted in part to rein in former Secretary of State Todd Rokita, a Munster native who frequently used his name and likeness in advertisements during his 2002-10 terms in office.
The Rokita Rule, along with a sweeping package of legislative and executive branch ethics reforms, was unanimously approved in 2010 as House Enrolled Act 1001, by both the Democratic-controlled Indiana House and the Republican-controlled Senate.
During final debate prior to its passage, now-House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said: "This bill, if adopted in this motion, will give the public the assurance that its elected officials are acting in a responsible, transparent manner, and in a manner of integrity."
State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, who is the sole Northwest Indiana representative on the State Budget Committee, said after viewing the video and reading the statute that she thinks Hill has a problem.
"The ad may be perfectly legitimate, but he was supposed to come and ask and get authorization," Tallian said about the attorney general. "Isn't he supposed to know the state laws?"
Indiana Inspector General Lori Torres is empowered to investigate "fraud, waste, abuse and wrongdoing in agencies," as well as violations of the state's ethics code, and may refer her findings to the State Ethics Commission.
Torres separately is investigating allegations that Hill on March 15 inappropriately touched four women, including state Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, at an Indianapolis bar following the adjournment of the General Assembly's annual session.
If the Ethics Commission ultimately determines that Hill improperly included his name in the advertisement it can impose a variety of sanctions ranging from a civil penalty of up to three times the value of any benefit received from the violation, to a recommendation for impeachment by the General Assembly and even permanently barring Hill from future state employment.