TERRE HAUTE —
A state official has threatened to pursue the prosecution of city officials if they violate a confidentiality agreement signed last month.
The agreement was signed June 24 by Mayor Duke Bennett and other city officials during a meeting in City Hall with officials from the Indiana State Board of Accounts (SBOA) to discuss the city’s use of Terre Haute Redevelopment Commission money. The meeting marked the start of a state special audit, meaning the content of the meeting was confidential, said Paul Joyce, state examiner and a member of the three-person State Board of Accounts.
In a Wednesday email to City Council President Amy Auler, Joyce stated “I will pursue prosecution of any individual that violates this [confidentiality] agreement.”
Joyce’s email was in response to a request Wednesday from Auler for guidance on conducting Thursday night’s special City Council meeting dealing with city finances. The meeting had originally been expected to address the use of Redevelopment Commission money by the Bennett administration in addition to the city’s financial picture in general.
In light of Joyce’s email, which Auler read at the start of the special meeting, discussion of the use of Redevelopment Commission money was essentially avoided Thursday night. Even the topic of “pooling” money from various city funds was avoided by Leslie Ellis, city controller, who said she had been advised to avoid the topic.
City officials have in the past said they have “pooled” Redevelopment Commission money, including tax increment finance (TIF) money, with other city cash.
Cliff Lambert, executive director of the Redevelopment Department, filed a complaint with the State Board of Accounts in June concerning the city’s use of Redevelopment money, which has traditionally been controlled by the five-person Redevelopment Commission, an appointed body.
Four members of the Terre Haute City Council attended the June 24 meeting with the SBOA: Auler; John Mullican, council vice president; Bob All, the lone Republican on the council; and George Azar, an at-large member. Each signed the confidentiality agreement, along with Bennett; Ellis; Lambert; Chou-il Lee, city attorney; two members of the Redevelopment Commission; and Rhonda Oldham, the commission’s attorney.
Joyce, in a telephone interview Thursday, said the legal justification for requiring silence is to avoid interference with an official audit. State law prohibits such interference, he said.
Asked whether the law would prevent anyone attending the June 24 meeting from discussing the use of Redevelopment money in general, Joyce said that could be up to a court to decide.
“I can’t say what’s right and wrong,” Joyce said. “I can say that, would I seek prosecution if somebody talks about stuff we talked about in that meeting? … I mean, walk a fine line, don’t fall off. It’s their choice. A court would make that decision, not I.”
The subjects discussed in the June 24 meeting were TIF funds, Redevelopment bank accounts and how they are used, Joyce said.
Earlier this year, a city councilwoman in Evansville secretly recorded an SBOA exit interview and then released the tape. Joyce said the approach he is taking in Terre Haute is a direct result of that incident.
“I do not want people interfering with the audit process,” Joyce said, noting that an exit interview takes place before an audit is complete and all the facts have been heard. “You’ve gotta let the process complete,” Joyce said, adding he believes confidential meetings encourage open dialogue.
Joyce is pursuing a prosecution in the Evansville case, he noted.
In his email to Auler, Joyce said the audit must be “based on law and not public opinion.” In the telephone interview, he stressed that talk outside of the audit only “muddies the waters.”
“From my point of view, what good does it do for anybody to speculate between what is right and what is wrong [in the Terre Haute case] when nobody knows?
“When we get done, we’ll make a recommendation. This is how you should do it,” he said.
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes