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February 10, 2012

NASH: Holding officials to higher standards

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — A few weeks ago in my weekly column, I discussed a growing trend of people, mostly elected officials, who believed that they are above the law.

While sometimes the public officials don’t necessarily break the law, they just bend it. Elected officials should be held to a higher ethical standard than an ordinary citizen, but that is not always the case.  

Last weekend in a court of law, Charlie White, Indiana’s secretary of state, was found guilty of six felonies, including theft, perjury and voter fraud. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels quickly named an interim replacement with the understanding that it was only temporary. In his official press release he said: “I have chosen not to make a permanent replacement today out of respect for the judge’s authority to lessen the verdict to a misdemeanor and reinstate the office holder.”  

So the governor believes that it is OK for the secretary of state — the chief elections official of our state — to commit voter fraud, and still be allowed to retain his position. What about the judge who in December ruled that Charlie White was not lawfully registered at the time of the election and therefore not a legal candidate? That judge already ruled that Vop Osili is the legitimate officeholder. Why does the governor only have respect for judge’s authority that he agrees with?

If the convictions are upheld, the governor believes that he has the authority to name the permanent replacement. Some will argue that the Republican was elected by a majority of the voters in this state and for the court to award the office to the runner-up, would disenfranchise all who voted for White. What about the rights of all of the voters who voted for the only legal candidate?

A little closer to home a couple of local politicians have gotten into a little ethical trouble for decisions they have made. The first is former New Albany Mayor Doug England who it was reported a couple of weeks ago that he had issued an executive order allowing retiring employees with 10 years of service to continue receiving city medical insurance. Mayor Jeff Gahan quickly rescinded the executive order.

I do not have a problem with employees retaining some of their benefits after retirement. The company that I work for does allow this, but you are required to put in 25 years. Ten years is too short of a time of service to keep such a valuable benefit.  

I do have a problem with the process that was used. The mayor had the right to issue whatever executive order he wanted, but is that how it should work? If the mayor believed that it was worthy of consideration he should have brought it to the city council for a vote. I believe these “checks and balances” are necessary to maintain that everything is run aboveboard.

Also in the news recently, questions have been raised about some claims that Floyd County Prosecutor Keith Henderson has presented to the county for payment. WLKY-TV reported that taxpayer money was being used to pay to defend Henderson against ethics charges stemming from his book deal about the David Camm trial. Attorney bills from a law firm in Indianapolis have charged Henderson $375 an hour for legal work and the bills already total nearly $10,000.

The ethics charges against Henderson pertain to a book deal that he made before the second Camm conviction was overturned. The book deal was not within the parameters of the prosecutor’s job for the county and the residents should not be forced to pay for it. Had he written the book and it been profitable would he have shared proceeds with the county?

What if a county official was charged with theft? Would we pay for his defense?

Last year, the county highway supervisor retired following an audit from the State Board of Accounts stating funds were misappropriated under his watch. What if he would present his legal bills to the county for payment?

Elected officials should use the same set of rules that everyone is required to follow. By attempting to obtain special treatment, it raises questions about the entire system.

Every day more and more people believe that it doesn’t matter who we elect, they all end up disappointing us in the end, so why should anyone care. I believe it does matter and it is up to us to hold our elected officials to that higher standard. If they do not comply we can find someone who will.

— Matthew Nash can be reached by email at dmatthewnash@gmail.com.

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