TERRE HAUTE —
The removal of Turk Roman from the Terre Haute City Council was automatic as soon he was found guilty of a felony, city officials said Thursday.
City Attorney Chou-il Lee, in a legal opinion presented to Council President Neil Garrison Thursday, stated that Roman was removed from office “at the time that the jury verdict was read publicly” in Roman’s trial earlier this week in Vigo County court.
On Tuesday, a six-person jury found Roman, a Democrat, guilty of impersonating a police officer, a class-D felony, after a traffic incident in late 2008.
Lee based his opinion on a 2008 Indiana law stating that an elected official “shall be removed from office by operation of law” when “a jury publicly announces a verdict against the person for a felony.”
Although the law required Roman’s removal from the 2nd District council seat, it also provides a way for him to recover the seat, Lee noted.
“There do exist possibilities for Mr. Roman to return to his elected position,” Lee wrote in his memo. Under Indiana law, if a judge announces a conviction for a misdemeanor – instead of a felony – and also determines that Roman’s actions did not arise from his official capacity as a councilman – “then Mr. Roman would be reinstated to office,” Lee wrote.
Special Judge Matthew Headley of Putnam County, who presided over Roman’s trial, may, under Indiana law, reduce Roman’s conviction to a class-A misdemeanor. Headley will sentence Roman on April 30.
In addition to being removed from office, Roman’s council salary was to be stopped as of March 31, Lee stated in his memo to Garrison. However, if Roman is later reinstated to the office, he would be “entitled the monies that have not been paid to him,” the city attorney wrote.
In a Thursday e-mail to other council members, a copy of which was forwarded to the Tribune-Star, Council President Garrison said he spoke with Roman about his “suspension” from office. Roman “seemed fine with the ruling,” Garrison wrote, adding that “he will not be in attendance for either of [the council’s] April meetings.”
The next City Council meeting is scheduled April 8 at City Hall.
Roman’s attorney, former Vigo County Prosecutor Bob Wright, said Thursday afternoon that his client has agreed “not to perform any [council] functions or do anything until the judge has ruled at sentencing.”
“I suppose from a practical standpoint, you could say that he has vacated [his council seat], but that will not be, in our opinion, a permanent thing until the judge rules,” Wright said.
While Lee said Thursday that the law requiring Roman’s removal from office is clear, Wright believes it “really isn’t clear.” Nevertheless, Wright said, “It doesn’t make any difference, because [Roman] is not going to participate [in council duties] until the sentencing.”
Under Indiana law, a vacancy on the City Council would need to be filled by a caucus of the party that most recently elected someone to the council seat, in this case, the Democrats. The caucus, which would be called by Vigo County Democratic Party Chairman Joe Etling, would be made up of Democratic precinct committee members from the city’s 2nd District.
Etling, reached Thursday evening, said while Indiana law clearly called for Roman’s removal from office, the law also states that a “sentencing order” from the judge is required to trigger a caucus or other steps toward actually replacing an elected official.
Under the law, the Vigo County clerk would first receive notice of a vacancy of an elected office, Etling said. Then, the clerk would be required to notify the party chairman of the vacancy.
“That hasn’t happened,” Etling said.
For now, “We’re in a limbo period,” Lee said Thursday. “This is an almost fluid situation because, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time this [state law] has been applied at all.”
Roman, 75, was elected to the 2nd District council seat in 2007 to a four-year term. He previously served two terms on the Vigo County Council and worked for several years as assistant director of athletics at Indiana State University.
A jury found Roman guilty of impersonating a police officer after a traffic incident on east Wabash Avenue in late 2008.
Garrison, who was named president of the council at the start of the year, said Thursday he hopes those offended by Roman’s actions “can find it in their hearts to forgive him.”
Roman served on the City Council’s government affairs committee and traffic committee. He was also the council’s representative at Economic Development Corp. meetings, Garrison said.
The other eight members of the council will absorb Roman’s duties until the situation is resolved, Garrison said, adding that he temporarily will field calls or questions from residents of the 2nd District with council-related concerns.
Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.