INDIANAPOLIS — Former Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett kept multiple campaign databases on Department of Education servers and ordered his staff to dissect a speech by his Democratic opponent for inaccuracies last fall in apparent violations of Indiana election and ethics laws, documents obtained by The Associated Press show.
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.
Indiana law prohibits state employees from engaging in political activity, including seeking contributions, while on duty or acting in an official capacity. It also bars state employees from working on anything outside their official job duties while on the clock, or ordering others to do so, and from using state resources for political purposes.
Violating the official duties law, known as the "ghost employment" statute, can be a felony punishable by up to three years in prison. It's rare to have officials prosecuted because finding proof of violations can be difficult. Complaints typically go to the state inspector general, then to prosecutors. But prosecutors also can launch investigations on their own.
Though Bennett has been out of Indiana office since January, election lawyers say the findings on the education department servers could still warrant prosecution.
U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett and Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry, both Democrats, declined comment on the Bennett documents Wednesday. Inspector General David Thomas, a Republican, said his office is investigating Bennett but would not discuss the nature of that probe.
Democratic elections attorney Bill Groth said he believes an Aug. 28, 2012, email Bennett sent chief of staff Heather Neal and other staff members from his state account clearly violates the "ghost employment" statute.
In the email, Bennett directs 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."
The documents are the latest trouble for Bennett, a national star in conservative education circles until his abrupt resignation as Florida's education commissioner last month. His decision to step down followed outcry over an Associated Press story showing he oversaw changes to Indiana's school grading system in 2010 after learning that a school founded by a prominent GOP donor — and which he had consistently hailed as a top performer — had scored a C.
They also shine a light on the high-powered world of political fundraising.
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 Bennett's office would reach out to. 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.
The emails, meanwhile, show Neal periodically checked in on campaign fundraising efforts from her personal email account during regular work hours. In an Oct. 15, 2012, email, she relayed fundraising figures for Ritz that her husband, a top staffer in the Indiana Secretary of State's office, had called in to her.
Neal said Wednesday she didn't recall the email but said it "sounds like it was inadvertent" and was likely sent from her personal cellphone.
Neal resigned as Gov. Mike Pence's chief lobbyist last month, shortly after Bennett resigned in Florida.
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.
Campaigning on public time has been a sensitive topic for Indiana politicians in recent years. Bennett's former boss, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, accused teachers of violating the state's "ghost employment" statute last fall, saying they had been campaigning for Ritz during the school day.
"If you're a fan of anything goes politics, it was a creative use of — illegal, but still creative use of — public resources. We've got emails sent out on school time, by people who were supposed to be teaching someone at the time, all about Tony Bennett," Daniels told attendees at a Foundation for Excellence in Education meeting.