Former Indiana K-12 boss Tony Bennett could be facing a fresh bout of trouble in light of a story about how he may have violated state law by using his public office for political purposes during the 2012 campaign for state superintendent.
The story comes via Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco, who in late July broke the news about changes to the state’s A-F school accountability system on Bennett’s watch that ultimately led to his resignation as Florida education commissioner. LoBianco highlights an email that Bennett, when he was still Indiana’s state superintendent, sent to staff members on Aug. 28, 2012, after his re-election opponent Glenda Ritz gave a campaign speech. Bennett wrote to his staff: “Below is a link to Glenda’s forum in Bloomington. It is 1:35 minutes. I would ask that people watch this and scrub it for every inaccuracy and utterance of stupidity that comes out of her mouth.”
Indiana law prohibits what LoBianco refers to as “ghost employment,” which in this case means using state workers, resources, and time for explicitly political purposes like re-election campaigns. (Ritz would go on to defeat Bennett in the November elections.) In perhaps more direct evidence that Bennett might have flouted this law, Bennett campaign databases were kept on state computers. The databases included three fundraising lists and a “donor call” list. Violating the “ghost employment” statute is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Both Bennett and his then-chief of staff, Heather Neal, denied that they violated the law when LoBianco queried them about the emails, although it’s not entirely clear from the AP story how or if they responded to the discovery of campaign databases on state computers. In an email, Bennett specifically said he didn’t think it was inappropriate to ask people in his department “to examine those accusations made against the office.” Just where “the office” of state superintendent ends and a political candidate begins is an open question. (Neal, for what it’s worth, resigned from her subsequent job as Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s legislative director a few weeks after the A-F story broke.)
State Inspector General David Thomas, who was asked by Bennett when he resigned from the top Florida K-12 job to investigate the A-F accountability system in hopes that he would be cleared of any wrongdoing, told the AP that he in turn is now investigating Bennett. Thomas, however, wouldn’t say why he started the new query into Bennett.
LoBianco also details the fundraising behind Tony Bennett’s 2012 campaign. You’ll see the name Christel DeHaan come up—she’s the philanthropist and Bennett campaign donor who oversaw the school that directly and explicitly benefited from the changes Bennett’s office made to the A-F system in September 2012 (along with other schools). You can read the numbers, dates, and names for yourself.
When I spoke to people in Indiana last year who were following the superintendent’s race, one or two of them told me that the superintendent’s position was pretty far removed from the state’s political spotlight. Yet Bennett raised roughly $800,000 in his 2012 campaign, a huge sum for an office that supposedly doesn’t get a lot of voter attention. How many elected state school superintendents from just one or two decades ago contemplated raising the kind of campaign cash that sniffed seven figures?
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.