Bennett won the 2007 election by 110 votes over former Mayor Kevin Burke who then sued to have Bennett removed from office for violating the Little Hatch Act, a law that limits the political activity of people paid with federal funds.
Bennett worked as director of operations for the Hamilton Center when he ran for office in both 2003 and 2007. The Hamilton Center receives federal funding for its Head Start program.
Yet Bennett believes, given his role at the Hamilton Center and his connection to Head Start, the Hatch Act would not have applied to him. He also believes that only the U.S. Office of Special Council can make an official Hatch Act ruling.
“We’re still going to argue the point that I’m in violation of the Hatch Act. We still believe that’s an incorrect ruling,” Bennett said Wednesday afternoon in a media interview in his office. “I don’t agree with that.”
Bennett said he called the OSC in 2007 while he was running for mayor and made “general” inquiries about the Hatch Act. OSC officials told him the Hatch Act might apply to someone working for an organization such as Hamilton Center; however, “it’s based on the individual not just a blanket thing about the organization,” Bennett said.
“We looked at my role [at Hamilton Center] and everything I did and there was no reason to really pursue [questions about the Hatch Act] anymore,” he said.
In the initial legal challenge launched by Burke, Vigo County Superior Court Judge David Bolk ruled last December that Bennett was covered by the Hatch Act when he was a candidate for mayor; however, Bolk also found that Burke’s challenge came too late to prevent Bennett from assuming office.
Burke appealed Bolk’s decision allowing Bennett to take office and Bennett later appealed Bolk’s ruling that the Hatch Act applied to him.
Last week, the Indiana Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision found that the Hatch Act did apply to Bennett and called for a special election to fill the office of Terre Haute mayor.
In his media interview, Bennett also responded to comments Burke made Tuesday in a news conference at the former mayor’s home. Burke said Bennett had misled the public about the potential cost of a special election. Burke told reporters such an election would cost around $70,000. Bennett had put the cost between $300,000 and $580,000.
“That’s what it’s going to cost” to hold a special election, Bennett said Wednesday. He provided reporters with a bill, signed by Vigo County Auditor Jim Bramble, to the city of Terre Haute for $582,865 for expenses from the 2007 municipal elections. “It’s very expensive to run an election,” Bennett said.
In his news conference Tuesday, Burke said the $580,000 figure was for a “full-blown municipal election,” a primary and a recount. A 2004 special election in East Chicago cost $69,000, Burke said.
“I threw out the $300,000 [figure] because that’s what it’s going to cost,” Bennett said. One cannot compare Terre Haute election costs to those of another city because cities use different vendors for election services, he said. “I think [elections] are too expensive,” Bennett said, but “there is no misleading the public.”
Bennett also responded to Burke’s comment that Terre Haute’s federal funding could be in jeopardy because of his possible violation of the Hatch Act.
“That’s just political rhetoric,” Bennett said. Terre Haute faces no potential sanctions, he said. The Office of Special Council imposes sanctions against candidates and their employers in rare cases, Bennett said. When that happens, the sanctions do not “follow you around … There’s no way any action is going to be taken against Terre Haute,” he said. Bennett also said the OSC will not take his case now because he is no longer a candidate for office.
In his news conference Tuesday, Burke said someone found in violation of the Hatch Act can be barred from handling federal money for 18 months. “I saw the potential down the road for the city’s funding,” Burke said.
Bennett also used the opportunity Wednesday to defend his former employer, Hamilton Center. Burke said he chose not to make a public Hatch Act inquiry into Bennett’s eligibility before the 2007 election because the CEO of Hamilton Center assured him Bennett was not in violation of the Hatch Act.
“I think it’s unfortunate that Hamilton Center keeps getting drug into this,” Bennett said. “Based on the facts we [at Hamilton Center] had at the time, we didn’t believe there was any Hatch Act violation. I still don’t believe there was a Hatch Act violation.”
Bennett said his legal team is preparing its appeal of the appeals court ruling for the Indiana Supreme Court. He also said he will not pursue the case beyond Indiana’s highest court.
“We need to let the Supreme Court rule however it’s going to rule,” Bennett said. “I think it’s important we bring closure,” he said.
Bennett believes it is important for the Supreme Court to rule in this case in order to clarify who is and who isn’t covered under the Hatch Act in Indiana. Depending on how the court rules, we could see a lot more Hatch Act challenges to Indiana elections, he said. “You’re going to have more of these,” Bennett said.
There remains a lot of unanswered questions in the Burke v. Bennett case, including who would be eligible if a special election is ordered by the Supreme Court.
“However they rule, that’s going to be the final decision,” Bennett said. “There is enough grayness you really don’t know anything other than whatever the court ends up ruling,” he said.
Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.