- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tribune-Star, Terre Haute. Dec. 8, 2014.

The case against Tony Bennett

In July, a cocksure, even defiant Tony Bennett proclaimed his innocence of violating any but the most technical aspects of using state government resources to further his campaign to win re-election as Indiana’s superintendent of public instruction. Bennett ultimately lost that election to Democrat Glenda Ritz by 142,000 votes in a 2.5 million-vote race.

But last week, Bennett lost a far bigger matter when news broke that the state inspector general’s full report, completed in February but not made public for months, had found much worse offenses than thought when Bennett paid a $5,000 slap-on-the-wrist fine that brought the matter, in Bennett’s now-empty words, to a “final, conclusive end.”

Instead, according to a detailed Associated Press review of a 95-page report of findings and allegations, the report in fact alleged against Bennett and his office a broad, lengthy, apparently planned and sanctioned pattern of misuse of the perks of office in an attempt to defeat Ritz. While it remains several steps into the future, Bennett and some on his staff could face state or federal prosecutions in criminal courts, and jail if convicted.

The Associated Press … has for months been leading the news coverage of these suspicions that should concern everyone, no matter of party affiliation, who believes that governmental officials should be held to the highest ethical and legal standards.

Its review of the lengthy findings complied by Inspector General David Thomas (a former Clay County prosecutor who was appointed IG by former Gov. Mitch Daniels and reappointed by current Gov. Mike Pence) details more than 100 distinct instances during 2012 when Bennett himself or his staff members committed fraud by misusing taxpayer-paid work time and departmental resources. The alleged violations fall into three groupings:

- Payments that constitute wire fraud violations: Payroll money allegedly transferred into employees’ bank accounts that included time spent on political activities and thus paid for by taxpayers.

- Staff’s ghost employment: The allegation is that staff members worked on Bennett’s political campaign while being paid by the taxpayers. Thomas’ report alleges 56 instances of such ghost employment.

- Misuse of state-issued vehicle: It’s alleged that 21 times Bennett or his staff falsified mileage logs, fuel card purchases and clock times to mask Bennett’s use of a state SUV to go to big-buck fundraisers and other political events.

According to the AP, a section of Thomas’ report, labeled “Scheme to Defraud,” charges that Bennett, “while serving as the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of Indiana, 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 to the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.”

Those are damning words, and if true, they demand that Bennett and some staff members be subjected to criminal investigation.

Complicating that criminal investigation, however, is the bungled transfer of the Thomas findings to the Marion County prosecutor, Terry Curry, and perhaps also to federal authorities. Thomas avows that he informed Curry’s office on Feb. 27 that he was sending 12 binders of materials to specify and support the charges; an email Thomas’ office produced last week certainly appears to show that an undisclosed member of Curry’s staff acknowledged Thomas’ email and, so, should have been prepared to watch for the files. At midweek, Curry said he never got the full investigative file.

By now, it is safe to assume that Curry and staff have those files and have, post haste, closely reviewed them. Now the question becomes not so much why it took nine months for Curry’s office to discover the files but what legally can and should be done criminally against Bennett and members of his staff. If even half of the allegations are true, the guilty should have to pay with time in jail and hefty fines to begin to repay the taxpayers of Indiana for their excesses. Whether trust in government can ever be fully restored is another question.

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Journal & Courier, Lafayette. Dec. 5, 2014.

The problem with that abortion bill

It didn’t take a federal judge to see that Senate Bill 371 was on shaky constitutional grounds when the Indiana General Assembly passed it in 2013.

And it didn’t take courtroom testimony to see through the aim of a bill that effectively singled out Lafayette’s Planned Parenthood, the only one of the organization’s Indiana clinics that offered the abortion pill without being set up with surgical facilities.

So it wasn’t a total surprise when U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled Wednesday that the law was irrational, attempting to regulate clinics without mandating the same guidelines for private doctor’s offices that prescribe the exact same medication.

Magnus-Stinson virtually repeated what the bill’s opponents said as the legislature created the law, ruling that the “ambiguity in the statute leads to arbitrary distinctions and unequal regulatory treatment with no rational basis.”

That’s going to happen when lawmakers’ intent is so intently focused on chipping away and giving grief to one particular organization.

SB371 initially was more imposing, at one point proposing that clinics provide two transvaginal ultrasounds whenever RU-486 was prescribed. That was scaled back

The legislature’s final product changed the definition of an abortion clinic to include any facility that prescribes mifepristone, which is known as RU-486, a non-surgical form of abortion. The law forced any clinic that administered the abortion pill to be fitted with surgical facilities, including widened hallways, scrub rooms and recovery areas. In Indiana’s case, “any clinic” worked out to be Planned Parenthood’s Lafayette facility.

The catch was, no private physician’s office had to meet the same standard under the law.

While Planned Parenthood and its supporters found that vindictive, the judge read the provision as unconstitutional.

Our lawmakers, as passionate as they might be on the topic, should be able to square their consciences with the constitution. If they are really after the prescription use of RU-486, they can write a law that applies to the entire medical community - their friends in private practice included. If they’re simply going after Planned Parenthood, they shouldn’t do it by pretending they’re out to protect women’s health with regulations that are so pinpointed and so clumsy at the same time.

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The Journal Gazette. Dec. 5, 2014.

Workers benefit

One of Fort Wayne’s strengths is how Democrats and Republicans come together on important questions.

An exception was last summer, when Republican members of the City Council pushed through a measure to end collective bargaining for non-public-safety city workers.

The vote to override Democratic Mayor Tom Henry’s veto cleaved 6-3 along party lines. Then there was a similar bill, with a similar result, to enact right-to-work legislation over the mayor’s objection.

But this week, the administration and the council once again appeared in agreement on a question of fairness to city employees who are no longer covered by collective bargaining.

A city proposal to reduce personal days and vacation days for city workers would preserve existing arrangements for workers who were previously covered by collective bargaining agreements.

Those hired in the future will be under a new schedule for accruing personal and vacation time. But workers no longer covered by collective bargaining agreements who had received more personal days and accrued vacation time faster will see that arrangement preserved.

In addition, workers nearing 20 years on the job will still be eligible to receive five weeks of vacation pay when they hit that mark, even though vacation will be capped at four weeks for workers who don’t reach 20 years’ service by the end of next year.

In a preliminary vote, the council agreed. Republican Councilman John Crawford, who helped lead the anti-collective-bargaining campaign, said the arrangement seems equitable. It’s right, he said, to recognize that some workers may have received extra personal-day or vacation hours in return for giving up other things at the bargaining table in the past.

The proposed policy will cut city expenses over time, Crawford said, but “it will transition gradually, so that everybody will be the same.”

The proposal still faces a final council vote. But it appears the Henry administration’s evenhanded approach to the matter will prevail. Fair treatment means happier, more productive workers. Political harmony on such things makes for a better community, too.

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The Madison Courier. Dec. 3, 2014.

More work needed to address student athlete concussions

Schools across Indiana have reported more than 1,200 concussions this year among athletes taking part in the five-month fall sports season, according to the Indiana High School Athletic Association.

Those reports show that football players suffered nearly 70 percent of the reported 1,219 concussions, followed by girls and boys soccer players with about 20 percent.

The concussion issue has gained momentum in the past few years among amateur and pro athletes alike. Tougher rules for restricting play after concussions and more testing has been adopted, but the culture of playing with injury is hard to change from high schools to pros.

Indiana is making progress in preventing student-athlete concussions. This is the first year of the IHSAA’s voluntary system for reporting concussions, so the group doesn’t have any comparison figures.

“The numbers are fairly reflective of what we anticipated with the lion’s share in football and on natural grass. Girls soccer numbers are up there like I thought they would be,” IHSAA Commissioner Bobby Cox told an Indianapolis television station. “But I would never have thought about swimmers hitting their heads on the wall and getting a concussion, or one kid who hit himself in the head with a tennis racket and got a concussion.”

The issue has been addressed by the Indiana General Assembly. A state law that took effect in 2012 requires schools to immediately remove from play or practice any athletes suspected of sustaining a concussion. Those athletes are not allowed to return until they have written clearance from a licensed health care provider trained in the evaluation and management of concussions.

The schools reported to the IHSAA that 92 percent of athletes who suffered a concussion were able to participate in their sport again within 30 days.

Another area where improvement is evident is the education of coaches who have received more training on recognizing behavior associated with a concussion.

The long-term effects of concussions and brain injuries have shown themselves in tragic ways with some professional athletes. Young retired pro athletes find themselves with memory loss and other brain function problems.

We all like a winning team, but if we’re not vigilant on concussions, all the athletes will be losers in the long run.

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