Former Indiana schools Superintendent Tony Bennett has been investigated for months over the alleged use of state staff and state resources during his campaign for re-election in 2012. Tom LoBianco of The Associated Press says that the investigation has found enough evidence to charge Bennett for wire fraud, according to a copy of the voluminous report viewed by AP.
Up until now, Bennett has not faced prosecution even though recommendations were made to pursue the allegations. If charged, Bennett could face up to 20 years behind bars.
Indiana’s Inspector General David Thomas completed a report in February that found over 100 cases of violation of federal wire fraud by Bennett or his employees. The first report, which was released in July of this year, found few violations and resulted in a $5,000 fine and a slap on the wrist for Bennett in the form of a suggestion that he could have rewritten rules in order to give himself some campaigning time during work hours.
The inspector general is about to leave office and did not have anything to say about the original eight-page formal report, but did state that the investigation was submitted to state and federal officials. The full 95-page report makes it clear that Thomas’ investigator was of the opinion that grounds existed for charges to be brought against Bennett. A US attorney’s office spokesperson declined to comment last week, and Bennett told The Associated Press that the matter was closed and he had no comment.
In a section labeled “Scheme to Defraud,” the inspector general’s office laid out its case, saying Bennett “devised a scheme or artifice to defraud the State of Indiana of money and property by using State of Indiana paid employees and property, for his own personal gain, as well as for his own political benefit” to be re-elected.
It was the AP that reported last year in September that Bennett had kept several campaign databases on Department of Education servers; kept a calendar that had 100 “campaign calls” taking place during work hours; ordered his staff to find inaccuracies in one of his opponent’s speeches – a possible Indiana elections and ethics law violation; and on 56 separate instances asked 14 of his employees to take actions which could be defined as wire fraud.
After leaving his position in Indiana, Bennett became Florida’s state superintendent, but resigned in August of 2013 when the AP published documents which showed that Bennett had manipulated Indiana’s “A-F” grading system to benefit a charter school in the state which was run by a well-known Republican donor.
The accusations included five categories: political campaign fundraising, responding to political opponent’s assertions, calendar political activity meetings, political campaign call appointments and general political campaign activity. Investigator Charles Coffin came up with information that seemed to support the allegations against Bennett such as falsified mileage logs, using state workers as drivers for campaign trips, using a state vehicle for traveling to fundraisers, and taking trips to events labeled “education-related” but logged onto calendars as events with political donors in attendance.
Last week, Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry heard there was more to the Tony Bennett investigation than what he had first known. WXIN-TV quotes a statement released by Curry last week:
“This troubling lack of transparency underscores our continuing concerns with the authority granted by the Indiana Governor’s Office to the Inspector General to serve in an investigative role without the proper experience or independence expected of an investigative agency. We strongly urge Governor Pence to reconsider the role of the Indiana Office of Inspector General in criminal investigations.”
Reporter Russ McQuaid of WXIN said that Curry stated that the investigation will include looking into allegations of “ghost employees and falsification of time cards” within the Indiana Department of Education as well.
Gov. Mike Pence says that he supports Inspector General Thomas amid controversy surrounding the investigation.
“I’m grateful for the thorough manner in which he looked into that,” Pence said Thursday. “I would leave that matter to the inspector general to comment, or to the appropriate officials in the U.S. Attorney’s office, or the Marion County prosecutor’s office.”
However, writes Tom LoBianco of The Associated Press, Curry said last week that he never received a report from Thomas.
“It is understandable that files may be lost in the largest prosecutor’s office in the state, which processes thousands of filings,” Thomas said in a statement Thursday morning. “Accordingly, I have instructed our special agents to prepare a copy of the materials that were previously provided to Prosecutor Curry and re-submit to his office.”
Former US Attorney Joe Hogsett, who is now running for mayor for Indianapolis, declined to comment.