The Journal Gazette
Sunday, December 08, 2019 1:00 am

Spending questions shadow Hill

Elkhart office at issue; he denies impropriety

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – After becoming attorney general, Curtis Hill quickly asked for a raise and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate his office – including new furniture and reclaimed chandeliers.

But it turns out Hill doesn't even spend much time there – instead using taxpayer dollars on a satellite office in Elkhart, where he lives. This maneuver allows him to count much of his mileage back and forth to the Capitol as a business expense.

Hill – who is awaiting possible discipline from the Indiana Supreme Court for allegedly groping female legislative staffers – also has a state employee on staff who has been paid thousands by his campaign. 

These are the latest in a string of questionable financial decisions by the Republican state officeholder, who announced last month he would seek reelection.

“This guy is pretty rogue and it's frustrating to watch,” said Julia Vaughn, Indiana's Common Cause director and a longtime Statehouse watchdog.

Allegations of drunken and inappropriate behavior haven't seemed to move the needle with rank-and-file Republicans, though Gov. Eric Holcomb and other legislative leaders called for Hill's resignation.

The question now is whether fiscal concerns carry any more weight.

Vaughn said the Republican Party used to be frugal and focused on small government.

“But it's a different party. I think there are people willing to overlook his fiscal recklessness because they are more interested in ideological issues he has been a champion on,” she said.

“He may just get by with it.”

Second office

The revelation that Hill has an Elkhart office quietly came out in a recent disciplinary hearing. It is in the building with the Elkhart prosecutor's office – a previous employer of Hill.

The 837-square-foot office is costing taxpayers $446 a month. By comparison, the governor's office in the Statehouse is about 1,200 square feet.

No other state officeholder has a second office elsewhere.

Hill declined to be interviewed for this story but his office answered some written questions.

“The Attorney General is a state-wide elected official. The office currently maintains a total of eight (8) satellite offices, of which Elkhart is one, across the state to carry out the duties of the office,” an email from his office said.

The other seven satellite offices are in Evansville, Castleton, Hobart, Indianapolis, New Albany, Greenwood and Angola. Altogether, they cost more than $500,000 in rent annually.

Hill's office said he is “typically” in the Statehouse office in Indianapolis every week, but it varies. His staff did not answer how many days he works there.

Legislators changed the law in 2017 – as Hill took office – specifically to allow him to continue to live in Elkhart. A constitutional amendment in 1998 allowed other state officeholders, such as auditor and treasurer, to reside outside of Indianapolis but the Attorney General's office is created by the legislature not the Constitution.

Indiana law says “the attorney general shall keep the attorney general's office in the statehouse, and the attorney general shall, on all business days, during business hours, be at the office, in person or by deputy, unless engaged in court or elsewhere in the service of the state.”

Vaughn said she has been around state government for a long time and “no one else in the executive branch is spending taxpayer money so he can sort of work from home instead of coming to the Statehouse to do your job,” Vaughn said. “This is the state Capitol and if you don't want to come to Indianapolis you shouldn't have run for office.

“I think it's outrageous and sets a terrible precedent.”

Mileage questions

Beyond the cost, the existence of the Elkhart office allows Hill to count mileage between the Elkhart office and the Indianapolis office as business use.

Personal use of a company car – or in this case, a state vehicle – includes commuting to and from work, and is a taxable fringe benefit.

The Journal Gazette reviewed Hill's mileage logs and found a relatively low number of personal miles on the state vehicle. For instance, in 2017 the average number of personal miles per month was about 390. One round-trip between Elkhart and Indianapolis would be about 320 miles.

He filed quarterly reports in 2018 and 2019, and the personal mileage was much higher – an average of 900 per month.

“From day one, Curtis Hill has seen the Attorney General's office as his personal bank” said Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody. “Again and again, he's fleeced taxpayers for perks and to his personal benefit. Hoosiers deserve an Attorney General who serves their interests, not someone who views public office as a scheme to put money in his pockets.”

Hill's salary was about $95,000 when he was elected and he approached a senator to push for a substantial raise. Under a bill filed the Attorney General's salary would have risen to $121,000.

The author of the bill said Hill told him many local prosecuting attorneys made more than the state attorney general and the pay should be more competitive. The legislation died without a vote.

Along those lines, Hill also gave substantial pay raises to key staff in February – ranging from 4% to 14%.

He told The Journal Gazette his staff was being poached and higher salaries were needed to retain talent. A three-phase attempt to adjust salaries cost the state about $1.8 million.

Hill now makes $101,000 and receives a housing allowance for an apartment he has in Indianapolis. 

Dual staffer

Then there is the issue of Attorney General staffer Garrett Bascom. He makes $58,000 in his state post, according to the state's transparency portal. But he was also paid $21,800 by the Hill for Indiana campaign for political strategy consulting during the first six months of 2019, campaign finance records show.

Bascom's name arose in the disciplinary hearing because he regularly sent and received emails – sometimes during regular business hours – related to the groping allegations and campaign work. Exhibits in that hearing redacted the email address – making it impossible to know if he was using a state email address or personal.

Hill's office said “Garrett Bascom has never been an employee of, or paid by, the state and Curtis Hill for Indiana at the same time” but didn't clarify the two paychecks by deadline.

The office clarified that Bascom was hired in January 2017 and then left state employment Jan. 12, 2019. He was rehired by the state on May 28, 2019. The campaign records go through June and there was a June payment to Bascom though it is unclear when he performed the work. 

“He was never employed by both entities at the same time,” a Hill staffer emailed.

Early in his tenure as attorney general, Hill also butted heads with the Indiana Department of Administration on state rules and regulations regarding procurement.

Jill Carnell, spokeswoman for the agency, said separately elected statewide officeholders can choose to use their own methods though most use the system already in place.

“The current attorney general and his staff were not happy with some of the rules that go along with those things. If you use our system you have to play by the rules in place. So basically they said 'we want to break up with you.'” 

So now if Hill's office wants to buy a car for instance, it uses its own channels. Hill also doesn't use the travel and purchasing card state system.

Carnell said those cards interface with the Auditor's Office and purchases have to meet certain conditions. Hill's office didn't agree and chose to obtain its own credit cards.

“We said, OK, Godspeed,” Carnell said.

Hill's office said the Attorney General has its own purchasing authority.

“It was determined that the office could streamline processes and reduce regulations that do not impact our business by administering purchasing and procurement in-house. All applicable statutes and regulations are adhered to by our business divisions,” the office said.

Hill's travel and purchasing expenditures aren't listed on the state transparency portal because it's not the same system. A request from The Journal Gazette for Hill's monthly invoices is outstanding. 

“Curtis Hill's job is to uphold the law, it seems except when it comes to his own conduct,” Zody said. “Blurring the lines between public servant and political staffer further degrades the trust Hoosiers place in Hill to serve their interests, not political careers.” 

Vaughn said it is unfortunate there isn't a mechanism in state government to hold elected officials accountable.

“We can get tough with low-level state employees but neither the Inspector General nor the Ethics Commission has proven effective with elected officials.

“It really is up to the voters.”

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