Former Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett was found guilty of violating an ethics law by a state panel today and agreed to pay a $5,000 fine as part of a settlement.
Bennett and his Indiana Department of Education employees spent his work time and used office computers and telephones for the campaign, Inspector General David Thomas found. Last September, the Associated Press reported it had obtained documents through public records requests that showed two Republican donor lists were stored on education department office computers and that he and his staff discussed 2012 campaign details via email. Bennett’s calendar also listed what appeared to be campaign phone call appointments.
Those allegations grew out of a larger accusation: that Bennett had intentionally manipulated the state’s A to F grading system to benefit a wealthy ally who had contributed to his political campaign in the past. On that score, the Indiana Ethics Commission found no wrongdoing when it adopted Thomas’ report.
Afterward, Bennett’s lawyer declared the nearly year-long ordeal over, describing his client’s actions as an easily correctable oversight but a violation nonetheless.
“While there were violations, not every violation of the rule is serious,” attorney Larry Mackey said. “Dr. Bennett, as a political officeholder, had every right to engage in political activity unlike state employees. But he has to follow the rules and the rules are, write a policy. He did not write that policy. If he had written that policy we would not be here right now and there would not be any violations.”
But when it came to A to F grades, Thomas’s report relied almost entirely on a report commissioned by the Indiana legislature that last fall said the grade change raising Christel House charter school from a C to an A was “plausible.”
Written by John Grew and William Sheldrake of the Indiana-based company Policy Analytics, the legislative report found that the questions raised about Christel House led education department staff to discover a programming error that depressed grades for 165 schools and to reconsider the interpretation for how to grade about a dozen schools with unusual grade configurations. The change affected all those schools, not just Christel House.
But that report stopped short of examining the motivations of Bennett and his staff with regard to Christel House. The authors did not address why email conversations in September 2012 focused so heavily on Christel House or explore the wide range of options proposed to raise its grade before it was discovered that the technical correction and rule interpretation change raised the school to an A.
“Any further motivations underlying these actions are beyond the scope and documentation of this report,” Grew and Sheldrake wrote.
Bennett was not at the hearing today, Mackey said, because he was on a family vacation. Mackey said the end of the ethics investigation should close the case entirely.
He pointed out that Bennett was among those who called for the ethics investigation that ended with today’s fine.
“He didn’t like the answer, to some extent, but he accepted it,” Mackey said.