The State Ethics Commission unanimously approved a $5,000 settlement between former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and the state on Thursday.
The settlement came after Inspector General David Thomas presented his report saying that Bennett violated the state ethics code by using state time and resources for his political agenda.
But Thomas’s report also said there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Bennett in regards to allegations that he tried to manipulate the A-F school grading system to benefit a school backed by a Republican donor.
Bennett did not attend the commission meeting, but his attorney, Larry Mackey, was there to represent him.
“Dr. Bennett as an elected office holder had every right to engage in political activity, unlike state employees and that’s the important message here,” Mackey said. “But he has to follow the rules and the rules are: Write a policy if you are going to use state computers to do any political activity, even if you are a state office holder.”
He said that if Bennett had written the policy, there would have been no violations.
Both Mackey and Thomas went before the commission saying that both parties had agreed on the settlement and asked that it be approved.
“On behalf of Dr. Bennett, he accepts full responsibility for the mistakes that he made that led to the violation of the Indiana ethics code,” Mackey said.
Bennett also released a statement about the decision.
“I’ve learned a valuable lesson that I can offer to others, not as an excuse, but as an explanation. There are tens of thousands of state employees in Indiana but only seven elected executive state officials. For those seven office holders this case is very important,” Bennett said.
“Hopefully my experience will help others prevent such unintended mistakes,” he said. “For me, I look forward now to helping the state return its attention to improving the lives of Indiana’s teachers and students.”
Mackey said that Bennett fully cooperated in the investigation and considered his responsibility as an office holder with “great concern.”
“At the end of the day he’s glad this is over,” Mackey said. “He’s glad that the IG report has made clear that there was no fraud, no misdoing in connection with A-F and he’s all about the business of serving students and teachers. So you’ll see him across the nation, continuing to do the work that he loves and believes in.”
Mackey also said the $5,000 fine was determined by looking at the fines from past cases where state officials engaged in misconduct.
The commission’s approval of the settlement did not please everyone.
House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said in a statement that a lack of transparency and accountability hurts Indiana.
“Our former state superintendent of public instruction uses high-powered lawyers to cut a deal in private that enables him to get off for the price of a used car,” Pelath said.
He said that it is nearly impossible to get information on a pending case from the inspector general and once the case is decided, Hoosiers have no idea how it happened.
“All of these efforts failed at the hand of one party that controls our entire state government,” Pelath said. “As a result, we end up with meetings like today, where everything gets decided away from the public’s eye, and no one is satisfied…except, of course, for the public officials who ride into the sunset with better things waiting for them in the next town. We can do better.”
The inspector general submitted its investigation to the Marion County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, which declined criminal prosecution.
Mackey said that with the commission’s decision, the Bennett controversy will be over for good.
Alec Gray is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.
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