By Ken de la Bastide
Tribune enterprise editor
TIPTON — The Indiana State Police have received a complaint from Tipton County residents to look at possible conflicts of interest surrounding the proposed Prairie Breeze Wind Farm.
First Sgt. Bob Burgess with the ISP Peru Post said Thursday the agency has been contacted by Tipton County residents and asked to investigate a possible a conflict of interest by Mike Cline, president of the Tipton County Board of Commissioners.
“We are coordinating with the [Tipton County] prosecutor,” Burgess said. “The prosecutor is reviewing documents and there may be an investigation. Once he reviews the documents, he will give us some direction to take.”
The request for the investigation was made by the Tipton County Citizens for Responsible Development, which is opposed to the proposed 150 megawatt wind farm in Prairie and Liberty townships.
Jay Rich, Tipton County prosecutor, said he has received information from ISP, which can initiate their own investigation.
Rich said he will review and screen the documents in the next week and then determine if he would go forward with the complaint. Because it involves an elected official in Tipton County, Rich said he would probably have to request a special prosecutor.
Cline’s mother Phyllis Schuck has signed leases with juwi Wind for five parcels of property containing 149 acres. According to records at the Tipton County Courthouse, Cline is listed as a trustee on the property as of last year.
When asked who was farming the property, Cline indicated he was.
Tipton County attorney John Brooke said Cline has consulted his own private attorney, as well as attorneys for the county, with regard to this matter.
“Given the nature of the ownership of the land, the control and other indicia, Commissioner Cline has no direct or indirect financial interest in this matter and therefore no conflict of interest exists,” Brooke wrote in an email.
Last Monday Cline recused himself from voting on the appointment of two alternates on the Tipton County Board of Zoning Appeals that will consider juwi Wind’s request for a conditional use permit for the wind farm on Feb. 25.
When asked why he recused himself, Cline declined to comment.
“Commissioner Cline recused himself on the appointment of the alternate BZA members to reduce the conflict in the County that people have raised without a full understanding of the entire private situation,” Brooke said. “His recusal should not be seen as a statement that he has a conflict of interest, merely an attempt to reduce the ‘grist for the mill’ that the people want to try and generate in opposition to this project.
“It is indeed unfortunate that conclusions are being drawn and allegations are being made as to Commissioner Cline’s ‘conflict’ when the persons most vocal are very much unaware of the facts,” Brooke wrote. “Having reviewed the matter with his attorney, Commissioner Cline is on sound legal and ethical footing in this matter and has no conflict of interest.”
Last week Cline said there wasn’t a conflict of interest because he wouldn’t benefit directly or indirectly from the leases.
When asked about Cline’s voting on Prairie Breeze matters, Jeff Stake, professor of law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, said that, in his opinion, if the commissioner gets a direct financial gain from his vote, it would be a conflict of interest and hence unethical for him to vote on it.
During the past few months, Cline has voted on the road use and decommissioning agreements between juwi Wind and Tipton County and served on the review committee on the company’s application for a 10-year tax abatement. The tax abatement was approved by the Tipton County Council.
Previously, Cline acknowledged he signed a lease agreement with AES for a proposed wind farm in western Tipton County in 2009.
The proposed lease agreements specified payments of $5 per acre in the first year of the option, $10 per acre for option years two and three and $15 per acre for option years four and five.
The AES leases were later purchased by E.ON Climate & Renewables, which is proposing to construct a second wind farm in Tipton County. E.ON already has completed the first phase of the Wildcat Wind Farm in eastern Tipton County.
Juwi Wind also has signed a lease with VanBibber Trust Agreements on three parcels containing 147 acres.
Newly elected Commissioner Joe VanBibber said the trust is overseen by his cousins.
“I’ve never met the two co-trustees,” he said. “There is not a conflict.”
Madonna Alderson, a member of the Tipton County Council and Mark Baird, a member of the Tipton County Plan Commission, both recused themselves from voting on juwi Wind issues because they have signed lease agreements with the company.
The Tipton County Employee handbook has a section on Conflict of Interest, which states “we expect that all employees will avoid activities, which create a conflict of interest with their responsibility to this County.
“The County also expects that its employees will observe the highest moral and ethical standards in any dealings in which they represent this County,” the handbook reads. “In many cases, it is as important to avoid the appearance of a conflict, as it is to avoid the conflict itself.”
In a statement, juwi Wind said it is committed to the highest level of ethical conduct in its transactions with local, state and federal government.
Matt Heck, project manager for juwi, said when it enters into lease agreements it is careful to ensure that there are no potential conflicts of interest.
For more on this story and other local news, subscribe to The Kokomo Tribune eEdition, or our print edition.