AP Exclusive: Bennett probe called for prosecution

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Posted: Dec 02, 2014 8:19 PM
AP Exclusive: Bennett probe called for prosecution

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A monthslong investigation into former Indiana schools Superintendent Tony Bennett's use of state staff and resources during his 2012 re-election campaign found ample evidence to support federal wire fraud charges, according to a copy of the 95-page report viewed by The Associated Press.

Despite the recommendation that charges be pursued, Bennett has never faced prosecution for such allegations — which could have carried up to 20 years in prison.

The report, completed by the Indiana inspector general's office in February, said that an investigator found more than 100 instances in which Bennett or his employees violated federal wire fraud law. That contrasts sharply with an eight-page formal report issued in July that said the office found minimal violations, resulting in a $5,000 fine and an admonishment that Bennett could have rewritten rules to allow some campaign work on state time.

Inspector General David Thomas, who is leaving office this month, did not explain the discrepancies in a brief email Tuesday, but said the investigation was submitted to state and federal prosecutors. However, the full report compiled from the six-month investigation, which is closely guarded, clearly shows that Thomas' investigator believed grounds existed for charges against Bennett.

Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry, tasked with investigating corruption at the Statehouse, said his investigators determined the evidence against Bennett was "minimal" and "inappropriate to pursue any type of criminal charges." He added that the inspector general's own punishment made it less likely for his office to pursue charges.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office declined comment Tuesday.

Bennett, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, told the AP that the matter was closed and that he had no comment.

Bennett's use of state resources during his failed 2012 re-election campaign came under scrutiny after the AP reported in September 2013 that Bennett had kept multiple campaign databases on Department of Education servers and that his calendar listed more than 100 instances of "campaign calls" during regular work hours. The AP also reported that Bennett had ordered his staff to dissect a speech by his Democratic opponent for inaccuracies — in apparent violation of Indiana election and ethics laws.

Bennett, a protege of former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, resigned as Florida's schools chief in August 2013 after the AP published emails showing he had overhauled Indiana's "A-F" school grading system to benefit a charter school run by a prominent Republican donor.

The full Bennett investigation document alleges that from Jan. 1, 2012, to Dec. 31, 2012, there were more than 100 violations of wire fraud laws. The investigator identified 56 instances by 14 Bennett employees that he said supported wire fraud charges.

In a section labeled "Scheme to Defraud," the inspector general's office laid out its case, saying Bennett "devised a scheme or artifice to defraud the State of Indiana of money and property by using State of Indiana paid employees and property, for his own personal gain, as well as for his own political benefit" to be re-elected.

The allegations fell into five categories: political campaign fundraising, responding to political opponent's assertions, calendar political activity meetings, political campaign call appointments and general political campaign activity.

Through reviews of emails and calendar entries and more than 50 interviews with top Republicans and former staffers, investigator Charles Coffin determined Bennett falsified mileage logs to cover fundraising trips and used two separate state workers as campaign drivers. The report also details 21 days in which Bennett used the vehicle to go to local Republican fundraisers coded as "business" in his handwritten vehicle logs, as well as instances where trips to events billed as education-related also had calendar notes about political donors being present.

The report cites the successful prosecution of former Lake County Surveyor George Van Til as a blueprint for prosecution. Van Til, a Democrat, pleaded guilty last December to six counts of wire fraud and admitted to using county employees for campaign work between 2007 and 2012.

Bennett has been slowly re-emerging in public in the last few months, speaking at conservative education conferences, working with national testing giant ACT and recently attending a private meeting with Gov. Mike Pence.

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