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November 18, 2013

EDITORIAL: An ethics test for Tony Bennett

Let’s hope issue plays out in public view

TERRE HAUTE — Tony Bennett, who as Indiana’s state superintendent of public instruction just loved to give grades to students, teachers and schools, soon will get a grade of his own — on an ethics test.

Will he pass or fail? An A or an F?

The Indiana State Ethics Commission will be the one to grade Bennett’s work. On Jan. 9, 2014, that five-member body is scheduled to preside at a public hearing at which Bennett will essentially be on trial. He will have to defend himself against charges of breaking Indiana’s law about use of government property, staff, equipment and time for political purposes in his capacity as what the law calls a “state officer.”

In an ethics complaint filed Thursday, state Inspector General David O. Thomas, a former Clay County Prosecutor, contends that Bennett, while working as state superintendent and while running for re-election in 2012, “... used state computer systems, equipment and/or software to engage in political campaign and/or personal activity, including: Political campaign fundraising, responding to a political opponent’s assertions, scheduling campaign meetings, scheduling campaign telephone calls, and/or other political and/or personal activity, all in violation of 42 IAC 1-5-12.”

We quote all of that verbiage to show that this is not a slight ethical violation that is being alleged, not just a tiny slip or unintentional oversight. If the charges are valid and provable, they will have demonstrated a concerted, willful and organized effort by Bennett to use state property and personnel in his unsuccessful campaign for re-election.

For instance, fundraising lists, a donor call list and a database of some 6,500 Republican activists were reportedly found on state Department of Education computers after his successor, Glenda Ritz, took over the office. Those all could be seen to be tools for Bennett’s re-election. Bennett will have to prove the educational or administrative purposes for those data.

Also found was at least one email, written by Bennett to his staff, that directly attacks Ritz. “Below is a link to Glenda’s forum in Bloomington,” Bennett wrote on Aug. 28, 2012. “I would ask that people watch this and scrub it for every inaccuracy and utterance of stupidity that comes out of her mouth.” Bennett will have to prove that statement — most especially its cavalier “utterance of stupidity” comment — is not an attack on his political opponent and a direction to staff members to dig up dirt on her.

Bennett says the charges are all false, that he did nothing wrong. “I look forward to working with the Ethics Commission and the Inspector General’s office to demonstrate proper adherence to state rules and guidelines,” he said in a statement on Thursday.

The truth, we hope, will be determined at that Jan. 9 hearing and announced either that day or shortly thereafter — unless, as allowed by the ethics commission’s procedure, a negotiated settlement is reached and approved. The public would be better served, however, if the case against Bennett — and his defense — are played out in full public view. That would allow the public to know what grade Bennett deserves on this test.

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