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Defending the indefensible

Bennett apologists stoop to same ethical low

Indiana Inspector General David Thomas and the state ethics commission dispensed with the Tony Bennett mess as quietly as possible, but making something disappear doesn't mean it never happened or that it should have happened in the first place.

Bennett's champions outside Indiana have an easier job because their audiences don't know the details of the former state superintendent's transgressions and don't realize they represent just more of the muck in the ethical swamp of Indiana state government.

Under one-party rule, anything goes here. Democratic elected officials in northwest Indiana have appropriately noted that the same campaign violations for which Bennett was fined $5,000 have sent politicians there to prison.

“We don't have an ethics commission in northwest Indiana. We have the FBI," Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott Jr. told a radio station.

At the Statehouse, however, the most blatant of conflicts can be dismissed and anyone daring to point them out can be labeled as a "self-serving opportunist" or "crusading journalist."

Activities that won't pass the smell test anywhere else go unchecked here. Where else could a politician appoint a majority of a university's trustees (including some who made six-figure campaign contributions) and then be hired as the university's president, reportedly with no communication between the trustees and the job "candidate"?

In Indiana, we have insurance salesmen who write insurance laws. We have nursing-home developers who kill nursing-home construction moratoriums. We have fireworks industry lobbyists who control fireworks laws.

Our Statehouse leaders have been known to advise their own constituents to hire a lobbyist, even suggesting they hire a specific lobbyist -- one who just happens to be a former lawmaker and golfing buddy.

Indiana's leaders make no apologies for the ethical mess. Like Bennett's champions, they wonder aloud how anyone could possibly suggest these "public servants" are doing anything but serving Hoosiers.

The problem for them, however, is that the swamp doesn't go beyond Indiana's borders. When one of these public servants makes a bid for a post elsewhere, they quickly learn what is acceptable in Indiana is not only frowned upon most everywhere else -- it's not legal most everywhere else. That's why you won't see a former Indiana governor in the White House for awhile and why Florida's commissioner of education is not a Hoosier.

That's all good for people elsewhere, but those of us who call Indiana home continue to live in an ethical swamp.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at