INDIANAPOLIS – Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett admitted to breaking state ethics law by using state property to engage in political activity, according to a settlement agreement released Wednesday night.
The State Ethics Commission will consider the agreement this morning. It calls for a $5,000 fine to be paid by Bennett.
But in his report on the Bennett investigation, state Inspector General David Thomas said he found no ethics violation related to Bennett allegedly changing a school's A-F ranking for a politically connected donor.
“First, no one has shared with us a specific rule violation,” Thomas said. “Second, the separate, bipartisan investigation requested by the Indiana Legislature, and which interviewed more than 20 witnesses and examined voluminous documentation, specifically found no special treatment on this issue.”
A hearing on the allegations had been scheduled for August.
Bennett released a statement Wednesday night saying the report should bring the A-F matter “to a final, conclusive end. However, I have agreed to pay a fine and accept responsibility for violations of DOE's electronic information policies.
“Limited personal uses of the agency's computer systems for political activity on my part would have been permitted if I had implemented policies that expressly permitted those uses. I did not, and the failure to implement those policies is no one's fault but my own.”
The report found that Bennett was a state officer – not employee – and therefore was not prohibited from engaging in political activity.
“But he still could not use state materials, funds, property, personnel, facilities, or equipment to engage in political activity unless there was a policy or regulation that expressly permitted him to do so,” the report said. No such policy was in place.
He admitted breaking the rule in three ways: First, prior to the 2012 election and with his knowledge, joint meetings between the campaign staff and DOE staff were conducted in Bennett's Statehouse office to plan his calendar.
He then kept a consolidated calendar, using his state-owned and maintained email account, to track both his official public appointments and campaign events. The use of both the state office and email account were not expressly permitted.
Second, Bennett received emails of a political or campaign nature at his state email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. He maintains these emails were unsolicited and that he does not recall receiving, reviewing or responding to many of them.
Nonetheless, multiple emails included communications about political subjects. For example, in September 2012, Bennett responded to a message from a political supporter that was sent to his state email account asking Bennett to provide him with questions to ask Bennett's opponent, Glenda Ritz, at a public forum.
Bennett was stunned in November 2012 when Democrat Ritz defeated him and blocked a second term.
Finally, following Bennett's defeat in the 2012 election, Bennett asked his staff to compile a list of personal contacts for his use in his new position as Florida's education commissioner. In January 2013, his staff solicited contacts from multiple people, including some who had worked on Bennett's campaign.
In response to that request, campaign staffers sent three lists, titled “The 5000,” “The Big Hitter List” and the “Red Meat List” that had been used during the political campaign for various political and campaign functions, including fundraising.
These lists were placed on a state computer before being put on an electronic storage device for him to take when he left office. But they remained on the computer system and were later discovered by Ritz's staff. Bennett resigned as Florida's schools chief last August.
Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody released a statement saying Bennett violated the trust of Hoosiers.
“Now, Governor Pence and the Indiana GOP seem content to let him get away with ghost employment and corruption of public data with a slap on the wrist in the form of a small fine,” he said. “This amount of money pales in comparison to his violations.”
Past ethics cases show former employees being fined thousands of dollars and being banned from future employment with the state. And the ethics commission can forward cases on to police and prosecutors for possible criminal charges.