Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Vigo County Court Tries Hatch Act Claim Against Bennett

Vigo County Superior Court Judge David Bolk in an unprecedented move is conducting a trial on a Hatch Act violation claim this week lodged against Terre Haute Mayor-elect Duke Bennett (R) by the losing Mayor Kevin Burke (D). Campaign finance and constitutional law specialist Jim Bopp argued in defense of Bennett's employment with the Hamilton Center, while Indianapolis' Ed DeLaney argued the Hatch Act violation on behalf of Burke. Bennett serves as the operations manager for the nonprofit Hamilton Center in Terre Haute, which also operates a Head Start program funded in part with federal funds.

By virtue of his position as operations manager, the evidence at trial indicates $2,000 of the federal funding can be attributed to Bennett's salary, and that he may have directed the spending of other federal funds by virtue of the position he held. Bopp maintains that federal decisions have consistently held in cases where the amount is de minimus, or there is minimal interaction with the funding, no Hatch Act violation occurs. DeLaney counters that Bennett signed construction-related documents for work on the structures which house the Head Start program.

The testimony during the trial indicated that Bennett actually contacted the federal Office of Special Counsel, which administers and enforces the Hatch Act, to inquire about the applicability of the law to his campaign for Terre Haute mayor. Although Bennett did not request a formal opinion, he was satisfied from the information he obtained from the office that his candidacy didn't violate the law. Burke also admitted he raised the issue of Bennett's eligibility indirectly with the Hamilton Center earlier this year. The Center's CEO told Burke his research on the issue led him to conclude Bennett's candidacy did not pose a problem, and Burke admitted he let the issue die. Burke raised the issue anew once he realized he had lost the election to Bennett by a little more than a hundred votes.

Based upon a report in today's Tribune-Star, it doesn't look like either side raised the issue of campaign contributions by the Hamilton Center. An earlier Tribune-Star investigation discovered the Center had illegally made about $20,000 in campaign contributions to various candidates in recent years, including a pair of $1,000 contributions to both Burke's and Bennett's campaigns. Jim Bopp has argued that a state court lacks jurisdiction to decide the matter. His efforts to get the case removed to federal court have so far failed.


varangianguard said...

I think Ed DeLaney is going to get "Bopp-ed". Like him or not, Mr. Bopp is probably one of Indiana's best political litigators. Brave of Mr. DeLaney to take him on, especially on Mr. Bopp's home turf.

But, it will all come down to Judge Bolk's own interpretation of the views presented. Likely that the loser will then take this to the next level of judicial review (as long as there is continued money for the lawyers).

I think that the issue of the Hamilton Center's political contributions would have to be considered a separate item for review.

For my part, this appears to be turning into a test of "law" versus "justice". Since I think that the U.S. usually allows "law" to take precedence, I would imagine that Mayor-elect Bennett has the better chance of "winning" in the long run (if not in front of Judge Bolk as well).

Anonymous said...

Hey Gary...if you happen to look into the latest blog entry by Jim Shella (Alert: Possible Voter Confusion Ahead) and expand upon that...I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts.

Gary R. Welsh said...

Jim is talking about the fact there will be 3 elections next year in the 7th District race. The first will be the special election in late February of March to be set by the governor. Each party's committeemen will meet next month and pick a candidate for the special election. The winner of that election will serve out the remainder of Carson's term. There will be a primary election at which multiple candidates could be running in both parties' respective primaries. The primary winner theoretically could be different than the winner of the special election. Then you will have a general election in November, which could see a different winner. To illustrate, let's say the Rs pick Jon Elrod to run in the special election and the Ds pick Andre Carson. Carson wins the special election, but many Ds are pissed off at the outcome of the slating process for the special election. Several Ds run against Carson in the May primary and David Orentlicher upsets Andre Carson in the primary. Jon Elrod loses the special election but wins the May primary nomination and goes on to defeat David Orentlicher in the November election.

Wilson46201 said...

...and the cow jumped over the moon!