INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (Jan. 21, 2015)– As ethics reform top a list of priorities at the Statehouse this session, FOX59 has discovered information showing the chief of Homeland Security for the city of Indianapolis may have violated a federal law late last year.
The Hatch Act is meant to prohibit government employees from certain political activity, something Gary Coons failed to do, according to legal experts who analyzed documents for FOX59.
“It’s the wrong thing to do, and it’s easy to avoid,” David Orentlicher said, a law professor at IU McKinney School of Law and former member of the Indiana General Assembly.
Before Wednesday, when people logged on to the Vote Yes for Perry Schools website, they found an endorsement from Coons, using his official government title to advocate for the passage of this spring’s school referendum.
“As a top public safety official I would much prefer that students be in the school building and not classroom trailers,” the quote said.
After FOX59 contacted the Department of Public Safety, Coons’ official title was taken off the website and the quote was changed to begin reading, “As a parent…” as opposed to “As a public safety official…”
Coons is chairman of the Vote Yes for Perry Schools political action committee. In the official filing, it listed Coons’ government contact information, instead of his personal.
Orentlicher, who reviewed the document and website with colleagues, said using a government identification and title appear to be technical violations of the federal Hatch Act.
“Going on the website and now saying I’m supporting this, and I hold the office as chief of Homeland Security, that I think goes a step beyond and is not just a technical violation,” Orentlicher said. “That goes to the spirit and the concerns of the law.”
Orentlicher said neither are egregious violations, by any means, and probably wouldn’t warrant any federal investigation or penalty.
But he said it’s time for state and local codes to update to keep up with the face-paced world of politics and PACs, adding neither action appear to violate any state or county code.
“I think in general we know the codes in this area, the ethics and legal codes that regulate political activity don’t reach far enough,” Orentlicher said. “And that’s one of the reasons why one of the top matters on the agenda for the Indiana General Assembly was their ethics codes for their members.”
If Coons’ official government title and contact information weren’t used, Orentlicher said there’d be no problem.
“We don’t want to force people to choose between their job and being active in their communities, especially when we’re talking about school funding,” Orentlicher said. “That’s such an important issue for people, and he should be applauded for becoming involved. But he should have been very scrupulous about not trying to take advantage of his official position to promote his personal interests.”
FOX59 was told the PAC paperwork is being refiled to reflect Coons’ personal contact information. He wasn’t made available for comment Wednesday.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Safety said, “We discussed this further this morning and decided the appropriate first step is for us to explore this in depth with Chief Coons, the City’s Human Resources Department and the City’s Office of Corporation Counsel. It wouldn’t be proper for us to offer further comment regarding the matter until we have fully vetted it.”
No specific timeline was given.