LaPORTE – Remember how the character George Bailey in the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” was given the gift of being able to see how events would have unfolded in his hometown of Bedford Falls if he’d never been born?
Well, we’re now given the “gift” of wondering what if the U.S. attorney or the Marion County prosecutor had taken up the issue of former Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Bennett’s allegedly criminal behavior in a grand jury in 2014?  Several of us, including Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott, practically pleaded in November 2013 for a grand jury to be convened, only for those pleas to fall on deaf ears including many in our own party.  How different would the political landscape look in Indiana today?
It’s a question worth pondering as that timeless movie favorite starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed plays again for appreciative audiences.  Would the Legislature look a little bit more like Bedford Falls than Pottersville next year?  Would we have a few more Democrats who might have survived close races in the house of representatives and state senate? I suggest that’s the case.
It’s pretty damning when an investigator for the inspector general’s office states conclusively in a report that former State Supt. Bennett “devised a scheme or artifice to defraud the State of Indiana by using State of Indiana paid employees and property, for his own personal gain, as well as his own political benefit to be elected.”
The full report was released, not after investigative work done by either the Marion County prosecutor or U.S. attorney to unearth the material, but by an intrepid reporter with the Associated Press. It showed that from Jan. 1, 2012, to Dec. 31, 2012, more than 100 alleged violations of federal wire fraud laws occurred. The claims included 56 alleged violations by 14 different Bennett employees and 21 days in which Bennett allegedly misused his state issued SUV. Former Chief of Staff Heather Neal had the most alleged violations, 17.
Bennett and his top staff clearly viewed that state office as nothing more than a campaign headquarters and tales of arrogance and abuse of power are littered throughout the full 95-page report.
How different would the political terrain have been in 2014 had Tony Bennett and his cronies at the Indiana Department of Education been dealing with grand jury subpoenas and having to spend time and money with attorneys preparing to testify under oath? Bet the Tony Bennett alumni organization would not have had the time, resources or inclination to staff the “shadow” education department known as CECI that worked almost daily in 2014 to strip authority from Supt. Glenda Ritz or defame her in leaked reports to the media.
Had there been a criminal investigation ongoing, can you imagine the hay Indiana Democrats could have legitimately made about the “culture of corruption” under Bennett? Imagine the Democratic mailers featuring a photo of the embattled, scandal-plagued Tony Bennett arm in arm with targeted Republican legislators. That would have been a far more potent attack than going after little Rep. Eric Turner of Cicero whose name ID was nonexistent statewide and whose alleged ethics misbehavior was hard to understand even for voters in his own district. No, the Bennett allegations involved clear misuse of a state office and taxpayer dollars and would have been easy to convey.  It’s the kind of issue that can turn close legislative contests like the ones we lost in Lake County.
Alas, it was not to be. Unlike the Republicans, who have no hesitation about barking and braying for grand juries at even the hint of misbehavior by Democrats (see Philpot, Van Til and Butch Morgan prosecutions as examples), too many Hoosier Democrats are timid about pursuing allegations of Republican misbehavior.
This was no secret back then. Despite news leaking out in November 2013 about Bennett keeping multiple campaign databases on Department of Education servers and his calendar listing more than 100 instances of “campaign calls” during regular work hours, as well as staff directed to dissect a Glenda Ritz campaign speech for misstatements, calls were slow or nonexistent in requesting a criminal probe.
I suggest at this season of reflection that many of my Democratic brethren take a deep breath and commit to regaining some backbone and some nerve that our friends on the other side of the aisle clearly have honed in their years of winning statewide campaigns.
When they have a political opponent on the run with ethics issues, they don’t let up. It’s been 14 years since we had a state opposition research program the likes of which was run by Tom New, Pat Terrell and Robin Winston for the O’Bannon reelection, and I submit we better regain our nerve or we run the risk of many more lost statewide elections.
A few lessons in hard-nosed campaign politics from our Republican friends is just what we need in our stockings this Christmas. If not, we will be condemned to wandering the wilderness for another 20 years. As Chris Matthews says at the start of every show, “Let’s play hard ball.”
Shaw R. Friedman is former legal counsel for the Indiana Democratic Party and a regular contributor to HPI.