Election board seeks investigation
A letter sent out in a school newsletter, penned by Lanesville Community School Corp. school board president Donald J. Hussung, was the focus of a complaint filed by Harrison County GOP chairman Scott Fluhr and, now, an investigation requested by the Harrison County Election Board.
The three-member board voted last Tuesday to seek an investigation into whether any state law was violated by the letter, which came out two weeks before the General Election in November and urged parents to consider the voting records of the candidates, specifically who had voted most often in favor of Lanesville schools.
That candidate was then-Harrison County Councilman Carl (Buck) Mathes, a Democrat, who was running against then-Republican Councilwoman Rhonda J. Rhoads for the District 2 county commissioner’s seat. Both had voted several times on the issue of forgiving a Lanesville school loan; Mathes voted to forgive and Rhoads voted against.
It was up to the election board to decide whether the complaint had merit and to seek an investigation. Edith Richards, a Democrat, and Republicans Sherry Brown and Larry Shickles make up the board. Brown sits on the board due to her position as Harrison County clerk. Richards and Shickles were appointed by their respective party chairs.
Lanesville school attorney Gordon Ingle said he wasn’t particularly surprised by the verdict of the election board.
‘Yes and no,’ he said. ‘Yes, because I think the case has no merit and I think it’s a witch hunt, and no because of the fact that the board is majority Republicans and I think that Mr. Shickles has an ax to grind.’
‘The first issue is a formal request was made,’ Shickles said. ‘The election board has an obligation to take that request up, and that’s what it essentially has done.’
Shickles said that anytime politics is involved in an issue, someone could say it’s partisan, but he contends this is a legitimate issue that needs addressing, despite the party affiliation of election board members.
‘The board is doing, literally at this point, nothing but being careful and making a determination of if there was a violation, and if there was, who did it,’ he said.
During the election board hearing, Shickles said there was a letter, issued by the Indiana Secretary of State’s office, read that said Hussung’s letter did merit an investigation under a state statute regarding campaign finance requirements, but Shickles said it’s unclear who’s to blame for the misconduct.
‘That’s why we didn’t want to make the decision without asking all the questions,’ he said. ‘The school board, the audio (from the meeting), they talked about it in rather casual conversation, but took no action. Not voting is not a consensus.’
Ingle said his opinion is no law was broken. ‘The specific law they said might have been violated was that a person who expends or spends money to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate,’ Ingle said.
‘In my opinion, the (letter) that Lanesville sent out did not expressly advocate election or defeat of a candidate.’
Ingle said the word ‘expressly’ is narrowly defined by the law and, in the case at Lanesville, no one did that.
‘The only intent (Hussung) had was to let voters know what the records of the particular candidates were and, in my opinion, that’s fair game,’ Ingle said.
For now, a letter is being drafted to be sent to the attorney general and secretary of state to ask them to conduct an investigation and return findings to the election board.
Shickles said the board will be looking for two things: whether the letter meets the qualifications as specified under the state statue as campaign material or as a letter intended to advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, and, if it does, who’s responsible.
The state investigation would follow the chain of events and would likely determine who, if anyone, is at fault, be it the author of the letter, the superintendent, the principal or anyone else involved. But, Shickles maintained the issue was important enough to merit such an investigation.
‘We cannot let our government institutions use government resources such as that to play a role in elections,’ he said.
The election board is planning to approach the Harrison County Commissioners for permission to go to the Harrison County Council for $5,000 for legal counsel, and Shickles said he has no reason to believe that request won’t be granted.
‘It’s a difficult situation,’ he said. ‘Two people (Mathes and James Goldman, who was also mentioned in the letter) who have to vote for that you could somewhat say are benefactors. I appreciate it’s putting them in a tough situation.’
The money would only be used if the board believes it’s necessary to seek counsel, not an assurance that it will seek it, but Shickles said it’s in the county’s best interest to allow the board to do so, if it sees fit.
If the investigation turns up a violation, no criminal charges can be filed and the outcome of the election cannot be changed. Shickles said a fine may be imposed or an edict may be issued warning against the same behavior.
Shickles said since both state offices are currently in legislative session, it might take a while for the investigation to take place.
‘I’m guessing it’ll be late spring before they dig their feet in,’ he said, though it could be earlier.
Findings from the investigation could take as long as next fall before being released.