Ethics commission accepts settlement, fines Bennett $5,000

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INDIANAPOLIS - The state ethics commission has accepted a settlement reached between former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and the state's inspector general related to ethics complaints filed against Bennett last year.

Bennett will be fined $5,000 as part of that settlement, accepted by the commission on Thursday.

"He has such pride for the service he gave to the state for four years," said Bennett's attorney Larry Mackey. "He was disappointed that his career ended in the manner that brought us here today."

The complaint alleged that Bennett used state computer equipment for his political campaign as well as personal uses. The complaint says the equipment was used for fundraising as well as scheduling meetings and calls.

"The rules are: write a policy if you’re going to use state computers to do any political activity, even if you’re a state office holder," said Mackey. "He did not write that policy. If he had written that policy, we would not be here today, and there would be no violations."

READ the inspector's general report.

Bennett announced his resignation last summer as Florida’s education commissioner, amid controversy he manipulated Indiana’s A-F grading system to boost charter schools while serving as state superintendent.

There were no violations relating specifically to the grade changing scandal.

"He’s glad this is over," said Mackey. "He’s glad the IG's report has made clear that there was no fraud, no misdoing in connection with (the A-F scandal)."

Back in August, Bennett said he was stepping down because the scandal was too much of a distraction for education reformers in Florida.

“I don’t think the children of Florida and our State Board of Education or governor deserve me having to constantly deal with this,” Bennett said upon his resignation. “I’m perfectly prepared to defend and uphold what we did.”

Emails obtained by FOX59 indicate Bennett and his staff manipulated Indiana’s A-F grading formula to help boost charter schools — particularly, the Christel House Academy, run by big Republican donor, Christel DeHaan. The school received an “A” grade instead of a “C”.

“This will be a HUGE problem for us,” Bennett wrote to his staff in September 2012. “They need to understand that anything less than an ‘A’ for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work. We may lose Pence on this as well.”

Bennett's attorney said he believed the settlement would mark the end of the case, though the U.S. attorney's office could not confirm or deny whether Bennett was being investigated by their office.

Bennett was not present at Thursday's ethics commission meeting.

Several other cases were also heard by the commission, including a top INDOT official now seeking employment with a state contractor, and the inspector general himself, who is also looking to leave office for a new job.

House minority leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, issued the following statement about the Bennett settlement on Thursday:

“Our former state Superintendent of Public Instruction uses high-powered lawyers to cut a deal in private that enables him to get off for the price of a used car," said Pelath. “When we created these ethics watchdogs, I have to admit I never envisioned what they would become:  A bucket of paint to coat questionable actions of high ranking officials with pity, apologetic sympathy, or downright respectability. Even our State Inspector General has had enough. He wants to leave his post as soon as humanly possible."