Top IHA official and agency in possible violation of federal election law

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Until Tuesday, Duane Ingram was the Asset Management Director of the Indianapolis Housing Agency in charge of the oversight of more than a dozen IHA properties housing in excess of 7,000 low- income Marion County residents.

On December 5, 2018, Ingram filed a declaration with the Marion County Election Board and officially became a Democratic candidate for the 18th District seat on the City County Council, and on January 15 of this year, he filed campaign finance documentation.

In doing so, it’s quite likely that Ingram violated a federal law entitled the Hatch Act.

“They want to keep the politics out of the workplace,” said attorney Carl Brizzi, “to prevent any kind of conflict of interest there.”

During his eight years as Marion County Prosecutor, Brizzi had opportunities to review the Hatch Act and determine if it was applicable in any local political races.

The Act precludes any employee whose salary or agency funding source is primarily the federal government from engaging in partisan politics.

As a frame of reference, current Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett resigned his post as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana in the summer of 2014, several months before announcing his candidacy for mayor, so as not to violate the Hatch Act or have his candidacy overlap with his tenure at the U.S. Justice Department.

According to a State Board of Accounts audit of IHA in 2017, more than 90 percent of the Agency’s $68 million budget was funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development with $9.9 million in administrative costs and salaries derived from those federal funds.

This year IHA’s budget is $77 million and almost entirely dependent on funding from Congress.

“If your compensation or salary comes 100% from the federal government then you are not allowed under the Hatch Act to run for partisan political office,” said Brizzi who reviewed the Act and recalled his own history in Marion County politics at the request of FOX59. “A decision regarding termination would have to be made immediately.”

Though his campaign had been official for more than six weeks, Ingram did not announce his intentions publicly until issuing a release on his Facebook page January 20.

Within two days Ingram’s superiors at IHA and Mayor Hogsett’s office became aware of his candidacy according to information received by FOX59 and action was taken to separate Ingram from the Agency.

FOX59 made its initial inquiry into Ingram’s status on January 24 resulting in a phone call from a spokesperson indicating that since his resignation was pending, “there is no story there.”

Ingram was given two weeks to resign according to an internal email generated by IHA Interim Executive Director Jennifer Green and obtained by FOX59

“Duane Ingram has made the decision to pursue his passion for public service full-time and will be leaving the Indianapolis Housing Agency. His last day with IHA will be February 5, 2019,” read the message Green sent to her staff Monday.

Brizzi said he doesn’t buy the explanation.

“I really don’t see any excuse to allow someone who’s salary is 100 percent federally funded to continue to work even on a leave of absence two months after a declaration of candidacy has been filed, fundraising has been done, fundraising reports have been done, public candidacy announced on Facebook. All of that seems very odd to me,” said the former prosecutor. “It still is pretty clear that if you are 100 percent paid by the federal government, the taxpayer dollars, you are prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity, and if his superiors knew and did nothing, they might have some liability as well.”

FOX59 has reviewed the revised November 2011 Indianapolis Housing Agency Employee Policies and Procedures Manual.

Page 87 is headlined, PERMISSABLE ELECTION YEAR ACTIVITIES POLICY, and reads, “During any election season, activities by IHA and other governmental employees are governed by the ‘Hatch Act for State and Local Employees.’”

In bold letters the manual advises, “Employees may not: Be candidates for public office in a partisan election.”

The advisement continues, “According to the Hatch Act, penalties for violation of the Act could include dismissal from employment.”

FOX59 has acquired a pair of internal IHA emails, dated 2008 and 2016, and one authored by current Agency legal counsel Marc Sultzer, that advised employees, “activities by IHA and other governmental employees are governed by the HATCH ACT,” and included a copy of page 87 of the IHA manual.

“I think the entity given its own internal policies and the emails show that it has a demonstrated awareness of the Hatch Act, what activities that Hatch Act prohibits and the fact that its advising its employees not to participate in partisan politics while they’re employed is pretty indicative of everybody knew what the deal was,” said Brizzi. “Certainly that would be the ethical thing to do to let your superiors know that you’re going to run for political office while you’re still employed and receiving a salary and, as I understand it, and as I’ve looked through the documents, there are also memos from the corporation counsel advising their employees that that’s prohibited activity.”

On January 28, at IHA’s Laurelwood property on the city’s south side, during a FOX59 investigation into the questionable eviction process directed at a resident, Ingram, one week after informing his boss of his candidacy and one week before his resignation took effect, admitted on the record that he was responding to our inquiry as part of his official position at the Agency and he was, “talking to my HR,” regarding his pending resignation from IHA.

When asked if he considered himself in violation of the Hatch Act at that moment, Ingram said, “We are not talking about that,” turned and walked out of the Laurelwood property office complex.

“The way I read the law I don’t see any provision for any sort of grace period,” said Brizzi. “You don’t have two weeks, you certainly don’t have two months.”

Marion County Democratic Party Chairwoman Kate Sweeney Bell told FOX59 that when she was tipped off to Ingram’s possible Hatch Act violation in late January, she asked him about the conflict and was told it would not be a problem since his resignation was pending.

Bell said the county party’s interest in Ingram’s candidacy was limited to his status as a Democrat and other requirements and not whether he was in conflict with federal law or IHA internal policies.

Brienne Delaney, Director of Elections for the Marion County Election Board, said local officials would have no insight into Ingram’s status regarding the Hatch Act or his adherence to IHA internal policies.

FOX59 has been told that Ingram was granted a two-week grace period after informing IHA of his political aspirations, “to ensure a smooth transition,” and that Ingram’s version of the on-the-record January 28 conversation in which he confirmed his status as an employee and referred to negotiations with IHA HR about his pending resignation is at odds with the account reflected here.

Ingram’s departure comes as Mayor Hogsett is poised to name a new IHA Executive Director by the end of the week, a reconstituted nine-member IHA Board of Commissioners is set to take office March 1, HUD has determined IHA to be in “non-compliance” regarding several financial controls which could lead to potential federal government monitoring or even takeover of the agency and IHA may soon surrender operations of four significant housing properties, several months after relinquishing management of two other sites, all while the Agency carries more than 130,000 potential residents on its waiting list and currently provides housing for 22,000 people in its apartments and Section 8 program as its occupancy rates slump and crime at IHA properties is on the rise.

There has been no official response from IHA regarding our inquiries.

As the Marion County Prosecutor and charged with investigating political corruption as well as monitoring the political interests of his own employees, Brizzi said he was acutely aware of the potential pitfalls that await a candidate, a supervisor or an agency that ignores the Hatch Act.

“His superiors who allowed this go on, again, they may be implicated in some way. This is something that is really under the purview of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Attorney’s office and I’m really surprised that they’re not looking at it.”

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