The Tony Bennett redemption tour has hit a roadblock.
The former Indiana superintendent of public instruction has traveled a hard road the past couple of years.
Bennett, a Republican, lost his bid for re-election in 2012, even though he outspent his Democratic opponent, current Superintendent Glenda Ritz, by a small fortune. Then a series of revelations completed the work of tearing his already tattered reputation completely to shreds.
Some fine reporting by the Associated Press’s Tom LoBianco revealed, among other things, that Bennett had ordered a grade improved for a charter school founded by a prominent supporter – a consideration he was not willing to extend to other, traditional public schools. Additional reporting showed he and his staffers had used government resources for political purposes.
Those revelations prompted several things. Bennett had to resign from his position as Florida’s education chief – the job to which he moved when he lost in the Hoosier state. Legislative leaders called for a review of his tenure as state superintendent and the state launched an ethics investigation of him and his office.
Those investigations concluded Bennett and his crew had rushed their “accountability” reforms in such a hurried and haphazard fashion that they’d made real accountability almost impossible.
What’s more, the state’s inspector general arrived at a settlement that cited minor violations and required Bennett to pay a $5,000 fine.
Bizarrely, Bennett and his partisans declared the report about his mishandling of the school grades and the settlement on ethics charges a “vindication.”
After a few months had passed, Bennett began moving toward a kind of resurrection of political fortunes. He took a private meeting with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, also a Republican. He began speaking at conservative education conferences. And, after avoiding reporters for months, he sat down for sympathetic interviews.
The process of redeeming the Bennett name and legacy seemed to be going along swimmingly. The man had a message – he was just too darned impatient to make Indiana schools better and that at times made him personally abrasive – and he was sticking with it.
Then along came another strong bit of reporting by the AP’s LoBianco, who by now has been removed permanently from Bennett’s holiday card list.
LoBianco obtained the internal report prepared by the state inspector general’s investigator, a 95-page detailing of likely violations of election law and other transgressions. The report called for Bennett to be prosecuted.
The state’s inspector general, David Thomas, apparently declined to do so and chose instead to accept the settlement that called for the $5,000 fine and the slap on the wrist.
It turns out that, if the inspector general’s investigators are to be believed, there was a great deal of evidence that Bennett and his team used state time, state employees, state equipment and state money to help him run his doomed re-election campaign. Among the highlights, it appears Bennett routinely used state computers to store his campaign databases, traveled to campaign and political events using state vehicles and state drivers and made campaign fundraising phone calls on state time.
Bennett apparently has opted not to respond to these latest revelations. He told the AP that he wasn’t going to comment on a closed matter.
That’s in keeping with Bennett’s overall message.
Despite the fact that Indiana’s education leadership structure is in shambles and the evidence that he bent or broke both rules and the law willy-nilly is piled high enough to reach skyscraper proportions, Bennett and the members of his dwindling amen corner still insist he did nothing wrong.
Strangely, Bennett and his partisans actually seem to believe what they’re saying.
And the fact that they can’t see just how wrong they were may explain how they made such a mess of the state’s education system and got themselves into so much trouble.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.