The AP's Tom LoBianco first reported on e-mails that former Supt. Tony Bennett had exchanged with key staffers in his office discussing the need to revise the state's new grading system for schools to ensure that a charter school founded by his largest campaign contributor didn't receive a letter grade "C" instead of the "A" Bennett and his staff believed the school should earn. Those disclosures forced Bennett out of the job he assumed earlier this year as Florida's top state education official. LoBianco has now uncovered more damaging information that indicates that Bennett and his top state officials were using state resources to conduct political activities.
According to LoBianco's latest report, Bennett maintained multiple campaign databases on state computers in his office and asked his staff to perform political activities, including e-mails asking them to review campaign speeches delivered by his Democratic opponent in last year's election, Glenda Ritz, who defeated him in November. When questioned by the reporter about the political activities, Bennett denied any wrongdoing.
Bennett on Wednesday denied instructing his staff to do campaign work and told The Associated Press one of the lists was used to make "thank you calls" on his own time after the election . . .
In the email, Bennett directs [Heather] Neal and other top aides to review a campaign speech by his Democratic opponent, Glenda Ritz.
"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," Bennett wrote.
Bennett defended the email Wednesday.
"I don't believe it was inappropriate or constitutes political campaign work to ask the people who best understand the workings of the office to examine those accusations made against the office," he told the AP in an email.
Neal said she was "not aware of any political work our staff did on state time or using state resources."LoBianco's story indicates that the matter has been referred to the state's Inspector General, David Thomas, for further investigation, which probably means nothing will happen on that end since he has history of overlooking wrongdoing by top state officials since former Gov. Mitch Daniels first named him to that post. His office is still sitting on evidence that it received in 2011 of strikingly similarly uses of the Secretary of State's office resources for political activities by former Secretary of State Todd Rokita and his staff. U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett and Marion Co. Prosecutor Terry Curry declined the reporter's invitation to comment on the matter. LoBianco notes that ghost employment is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison. In 1985, Goldsmith allowed Negley to plead guilty to ghost employment and official misconduct charges in exchange for a suspended sentence following his indictment for performing political activities on state time. Negley, like Bennett, had been viewed as a rising star in the Republican Party at the time.
The most damning evidence against Bennett is the campaign databases that he maintained on his office's computer server. The story indicates that there were three fundraising lists and a donor list discovered on state computers in his office.
Three fundraising lists and a donor call list tailored for Bennett were discovered on state computers. A “Big Hitter” fundraising list and the call list were created by Bennett’s fundraising director, Julie Southworth. An expansive database of more than 6,500 party activists and volunteers was created in 2009 by his then-communications director, Cam Savage. The Savage list includes a footnote that it is licensed by Salesforce.com, the party’s fundraising tool, to the Indiana Republican State Committee.
Savage argued the list names elected officials to whom Bennett’s office would reach out. However, a Republican leader familiar with the document confirmed it is a master list of potential donors distributed by the Indiana Republican Party to its candidates.
The fundraising lists include some of the deepest pockets in Indiana politics. The first name on the “Big Hitter List” is Christel DeHaan, the founder of the charter school that benefited from the change to the school grading formula. The entry includes her cellphone number, a note from Bennett fundraising director Julie Southworth on how much she gave and an empty column for Bennett to take down notes on the call.
“$20,000 to you in 2008 – Julie. Called 6-30 and she is currently out of the country for a while -- try again though,” Southworth wrote in the spreadsheet entry.
Other top donors in the file include Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay and Dan Dumezich, co-chairman of Mitt Romney’s Indiana campaign last year. A note indicates Dumezich might be able to put the campaign in touch with Chicago hotel tycoon Dean White, who has donated more than $4.6 million to Republicans since 1998 . . .
Bennett’s computer calendar also included more than 100 entries labeled “campaign calls” between July 2011 and November 2012. However, Bennett told the AP all the calls were made on his own time and outside his office.It seems pretty stupid and reckless to be shamelessly using state resources for what are clearly campaign-related purposes. A prosecutor needs to make an example of Bennett. Memories of Negley have become too distant for these younger politicos.