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History lessons escaped Bennett


History lessons don’t play much of a role in education reform efforts that emphasize reading, math and science. That’s unfortunate – an Indiana history lesson would have served former state Superintendent Tony Bennett and his staff of young reformers well.

The lesson is important, nonetheless, for the public officers charged with upholding Indiana election law. Evidence of political activity undertaken while on duty and use of state resources for political purposes by Bennett’s administration must be thoroughly investigated. Otherwise, it is only a history lesson, not a lesson for our times.

The year was 1985 and Republicans ruled the Statehouse. They held the governor’s office, as well as majorities in both the House and Senate. Republican Harold Negley had been superintendent of public instruction since 1973.

But Negley’s tight hold on the office was revealed to have as much to do with political machinations as with public support for his school policies. A grand jury investigation of ghost employment charges in the Indiana Department of Education resulted in the indictment of a top education adviser to Gov. Robert Orr and an education department auditor. Paul Krohne, the assistant to Orr, was indicted on two counts of ghost employment and one of conspiracy to commit ghost employment. The indictment alleged that as Negley’s deputy superintendent, Krohne assigned department employees to work during state time on the superintendent’s re-election campaign.

Negley resigned and pleaded guilty to conspiracy, ghost employment and official misconduct charges. He was fined $1,000 and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service. Marion County Prosecutor Stephen Goldsmith, a Republican, handled the prosecution.

“There has been no immunity offered to top officials of the Department of Education, nor will there be,” Goldsmith told reporters after the indictments of Negley’s top aides were handed down. Unspecified conditions were met in exchange for Negley’s testimony, Goldsmith acknowledged.

The checks and balances that revealed wrongdoing in Negley’s administration now appear to have failed Hoosiers in Bennett’s administration. It required another important check – the ballot box – to remove Bennett and reveal that campaign work was almost certainly being done with state resources by the superintendent and other top members of his staff.

Bennett’s defenders have worked furiously to spin the story to their advantage. They seized on a legislative review of the Christel House grade-change episode, claiming it vindicated the former superintendent. They charged that his successor, Glenda Ritz, leaked the emails to Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco. A former Bennett aide-turned-lobbyist, Cam Savage, even questioned the reporter’s work.

“Is this distinguished journalism or just the by-product of old-school political leaking?” Savage wrote in a column for the Howey Political Report, suggesting that misconduct is somehow excused if it is uncovered by a whistleblower.

But then came another round of emails – this one detailing political activities done on taxpayer time and with state resources. The latest disclosures reveal efforts eerily similar to the history lesson Bennett and his staff ignored.

In one email, Bennett orders chief of staff Heather Neal and other top aides to study a video of remarks delivered by Ritz at a Bloomington campaign event.

“Below is a link to Glenda’s forum in Bloomington,” Bennett writes on his official state email on Aug. 28, 2012. “It is 1:35 minutes. I would ask that people watch this and scrub it for every inaccuracy and utterance of stupidly that comes put of her mouth.”

“There is a lot of b.s., but I tried to pull out the undoubtedly, objective b.s.,” responds Will Krebs, a top aide.

In another email, Neal passes along figures from Ritz’s mid-October campaign finance report. She notes that “Davey” couldn’t get a copy of the report because it was “a zoo at the election division” of the secretary of state’s office. Davey Neal, Heather Neal’s husband, is chief of staff and deputy secretary of state.

Bennett’s official calendar, also obtained under a public records request from the Associated Press, notes hours of his official work week blocked off for campaign calls, some as early as December 2011 – nearly a year before the election. Campaign fundraising lists also were found on state servers – a clear violation of state election law.

“I don’t believe it was inappropriate or constitutes political campaign work to ask the people who best understand the workings of the office to examine these accusations made against the office,” Bennett said of his order involving the Ritz video, while Heather Neal said she was “not aware of any political work our staff did on state time or using state resources.”

An administration practiced in carefully controlling most messages and spinning every other communication might believe those explanations will suffice. Officials sworn to uphold the laws of the state, however, should not allow the claims to stand. Credible proof of wrongdoing exists and demands an investigation.

Bennett’s supporters, including the legislators who advanced his policies, would undoubtedly prefer the story end with the former superintendent’s thin excuse. But history has a way of repeating itself, particularly where its lessons have been ignored. The Marion County prosecutor should follow a predecessor’s lead in examining what looks very much like a breach of the public trust.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor, has worked at The Journal Gazette since 2000 and for Indiana newspapers since 1982. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by email,