News and Tribune

July 29, 2013

HOWEY: Government emails, John Gregg and me

By BRIAN HOWEY
Indiana columnist

There's been an interesting sideshow these past couple of weeks consisting of emails from former Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Education Supt. Tony Bennett and his then-chief of staff Todd Huston about whether the writings of Prof. Howard Zinn should be exposed and taught to Indiana students. 

If nothing else, it's given us an inner view of one of the more successful governorships in modern times,  and the first digital one at that, and how power and influence was wielded.

And this Daniels email story forged by Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco and his Freedom of Information Act requests to the Indiana Department of Education might not have existed had not this writer ended up at a Vincennes University luncheon with then-House Speaker John Gregg in November 2001.

Gregg had pulled some strings and gotten me an honor from the university where I studied journalism under Prof. Fred Walker Jr., between 1974 and 1976 before heading off to Indiana University at Bloomington. It wasn't something I had sought and it certainly worked against the grain of my modus operandi, which is to “blend” as opposed to being a conspicuous character.

I didn't know it at the time, but those circumstances allowed me to make perhaps my biggest impact on Indiana journalism.

The Internet age had dawned and was now becoming a pervading aspect in the way we communicate. In the long Indiana General Assembly session of 2001, House Bill 1083 would have prevented press access to the electronic mails of government officials. Beyond personal meetings, phone calls, letters and facsimiles, the email was becoming a key way to communicate and the rules developed around it not unlike what we're currently witnessing with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

HB1083 passed both chambers and ended up on the desk of Gov. Frank O'Bannon, who by vocation was publisher of the Corydon Democrat. O'Bannon vetoed the bill.

Had he signed HB1083, it would have dramatically changed Indiana journalism by keeping what has become a huge swath of information out of the public arena. We wouldn't have learned, for instance, about the cozy relationship between Duke Energy and the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission and the Edwardsport plant overruns.

The volume of emails between government officials, their employees, counterparts, constituents and even the press has been huge and expansive. Having the potential access to these emails hasn't been abused, in my opinion, but it adds a 21st Century check and balance for the Fourth Estate and its watchdog role over government. Most government officials know that you don't put anything in an email that you wouldn't be comfortable with showing up in a court hearing or on the front page.

As Robin Winston, former O'Bannon aide and Indiana Democratic chairman, liked to say, “A letter can die on the shredder, but an email lasts forever.”

After O'Bannon vetoed the bill, Speaker Gregg was under intense pressure from his chamber to bring up the veto for an override on Organization Day that November. Given Indiana's weak constitutional governorship, the override probably would have been successful. And by circumstance that he had concocted, John Gregg ended up at a luncheon table seated next to me.

While most of us at the luncheon were dressed in ties and sport coats, I remember Gregg showed up wearing a red and black lumberjack shirt. He was in his usual jovial mood, enjoying the notion that I had to ride in a convertible through downtown Vincennes as part of its annual holiday parade, which reminded me of the final scene in the movie “Animal House” though the boys at Delta House were hung over and didn't show.

 What John Gregg ended up with was a third-generation journalist who relentlessly bent his ear about his upcoming decision to call up the O'Bannon veto of 1083 the following week.

In the Dec. 9 2004 “10th Anniversary Edition” of Howey Politics (you can read it in the Indiana State Library arhives), I described the scene: “I pleaded, begged and implored Gregg not to hand down the bill. He listened politely, but was noncommittal. When I left the banquet hall, I used a 'Rexism' to describe what I had just done, telling a friend, 'I feel like I just threw up in the punch bowl.'”

A week later, Gregg refused to hand down the override.

And three years later, in that 10th anniversary edition, Gregg observed, “You were not given the credit you personally deserved on the issue of the media bill and the override. You told me it would've been disastrous to hand it down and you were right. That is a decision I've never regretted and I owe you a big one on that.”

Actually, despite the discomfort of the demise of this bill has caused Purdue President Daniels and now State Rep. Huston, Hoosiers all owe Gregg a big debt of gratitude for having the courage to buck his chamber and keep government emails in the check and balance system that has, for the most part, kept Indiana state government corruption-free since the last big scandal that occurred 30 years ago.  

— Brian Howey publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.