Terre Haute Mayor Kevin Burke has thrown opponent Duke Bennett’s eligibility to be mayor into question.
If supported, the challenge could mean the incumbent retains his seat.
Bennett on Thursday hired an attorney in response to a letter sent from an Indianapolis law firm that questioned his eligibility for the office based upon
a federal statute called the Hatch Act.
The letter, dated Tuesday, asks whether the Hamilton Center’s director of operations was qualified to run for mayor because the Hamilton Center receives federal funds.
If Bennett were to be disqualified, said one of Burke’s attorneys, Ed DeLaney, state law indicates that Burke would become mayor.In I.C. 3-12-8-17(c), which DeLaney referenced, the statute states: “After hearing and determining a petition alleging that a candidate is ineligible, the court shall declare as elected or nominated the qualified candidate who received the highest number of votes and render judgment accordingly.”
Bennett, a Republican, defeated the Democratic incumbent by 107 votes in the general election earlier this month, based on unofficial results released by the Vigo County Clerk’s Office that night.Burke has since filed for a recount.
The Hatch Act, a federal law, prevents workers in certain government agencies that receive federal funds from competing for political office in partisan elections. A U.S. Office of Special Counsel Web site dedicated to the Hatch Act says the law applies to employees of private nonprofit agencies “only if the statute through which the organization receives its federal funds contains language which states that the organization shall be considered to be a state or local agency for purposes of the Hatch Act, e.g., Headstart and Community Service Block Grant statutes.”
Hamilton Center runs an Early Head Start program. The letter from the DeLaney firm adds the program “is supported by federal funds.”
“As a managerial employee of a recipient of such federal funds, Mr. Bennett may be disqualified from holding a local office,” the letter says.FedSpending.org, a watchdog Web site that monitors government spending, reports that Hamilton Center received $852,898 for its Head Start program from the Department of Health and Human Services in fiscal 2005, the most recent data available on the site. The site also says that Hamilton Center has received more than $4.8 million for the program since 2000.
Bennett’s attorney, Chou-il Lee, said his client has no connections to the Head Start program, nor does he handle the funding or supervise anyone receiving those federal funds.
Lee did say that his was an “early analysis,” and he needs to get more information.The DeLaney letter listed 11 questions related to Bennett’s employment with Hamilton Center, including what reason, if any, Bennett has for believing the law does not preclude him from being mayor.
The letter was sent to Bennett, Bill Treadway, chairman of the Vigo County Republican Party, and Galen Goode, chief executive officer for Hamilton Center. They had until Thursday to respond, the letter said, before a court action would be filed seeking to depose, or to examine in a deposition, Bennett and Goode. DeLaney said he spoke with Goode and Treadway, who told him that they were retaining attorneys. He added that, as of 3:30 p.m., he had heard nothing further from any of the parties, and he had assumed during the mid-afternoon interview that he would not.
“I want to hear from these people,” DeLaney said. “That’s the appropriate way for this to be dealt with.”Goode said he retained an attorney, but would not reply to the letter. “I believe our attorneys are going to contact the firm of DeLaney & DeLaney,” Goode said, “and that’s the next step.”Lee said Thursday afternoon that not all the information needed to answer the questions was readily available, and “a lot of those questions” were about Hamilton Center.
“That’s kind of quick,” Lee said of the time to reply, “and so they’re not going to get a response within that 24 hours.”
Treadway said early Thursday morning that he had given the letter to his attorney, Terry Modesitt, and that he didn’t want to comment. He said that the attorneys representing him, Bennett and Goode wanted first to confer. Treadway was not immediately available for further comment Thursday evening.
The DeLaney law firm is no stranger to politics. Ann DeLaney, a partner in the law practice who signed the letter about Bennett, is a former chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party.
Bennett said in a phone message Thursday afternoon that he declined to comment, though he forwarded the letter to his attorney and was awaiting guidance. Burke said Thursday that no decision had been made as to a potential court filing. He could not be reached for subsequent comment.
Lee said that the letter’s timing “raises an eyebrow, doesn’t it?”
“I mean, an election was had, Duke got the majority of the votes,” Lee said, “and now it looks like they’re just trying to invalidate that.”
It looks to me like the Democrats are playing with fire here. Do we not have several members on our own City-County Council who are working for agencies which receive federal funding? Are we going to invalidate their election wins as well? Talk about sour grapes.
Hat tip to Indiana Law Blog.