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August 16, 2013

LoBianco: Inner workings of Ind. government rarely disclosed

Many recent investigations have pulled back the curtain on process

More and more, the internal workings of Indiana government are being shown and the political pageantry stripped away in a reminder that the trappings of power are rarely trumpeted in news conferences, aired in campaign ads or otherwise pushed out to the public.

The shock over former school Superintendent Tony Bennett’s grade-changing scandal might have had the biggest impact, costing a national education rock star his job as Florida education commissioner. But many other stories have been unearthed by Indiana media recently, showing a government that often operates more in private than public.

The chief of staff to Secretary of State Connie Lawson has spent the last five months negotiating a job with lobbying powerhouse The Corydon Group. An ongoing Indianapolis Star investigation uncovered that a contractor hired by the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, Elevate Ventures, had sent $800,000 in federal money meant for startup business to companies it had ties to. And the Indianapolis Business Journal uncovered a pay-to-play scandal at Indianapolis’ land bank program months before federal agents spent a day hauling records from the City-County Building and indictments were announced.

Gerry Lanosga, president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government and a professor of investigative journalism at Indiana University, points out that politicians have always looked for ways to get their message straight to the public, notably Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Now they have even more options, from Facebook to Twitter, for narrowly crafting what the public sees.

“It’s a pretty showy way of demonstrating ‘openness,’ but in reality what’s happening is they are trying to ensure that their carefully crafted messages are the only ones the public sees. And so we actually see less of the deliberative processes of government,” he said.

There are many more investigations that have pulled back the curtain for the public, and in each case the government didn’t issue any press releases for these stories. Instead, the stories Statehouse leaders have pushed have focused on job-creation task forces, the governor’s tax cut and other priorities.

Bennett, in particular, has maintained nothing wrong happened behind the scenes. Instead, he has said the news coverage of his grade-changing scandal “cheapened” all his other efforts at education overhaul.

On July 31, Bennett sent a resignation note to former Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Patricia Levesque, executive director of Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education — three people who shaped his efforts.

“Regardless of how untrue the portrayal is about our work in Indiana, it cheapened what we tried to do,” Bennett wrote in the email, recently obtained by Florida press. “Yes, while I can stand up until my dying day and defend what we did as right, it did cheapen everything we did and everything I wanted.”

He called the 48 hours of intense media scrutiny since the story first broke “a living hell.” His incredible frustration at all of the attention is similar to the frustration of Indiana school leaders who could not get answers from his team on how their school grades were calculated.

A few changes have made it easier to discover how elected officials are earning their public salaries.

Gov. Mike Pence and Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, teamed up during the legislative session to make it easier to see how the IEDC is spending tax dollars.

But an effort by House Democrats to require the state say how much it spends to purchase private land for transportation projects went nowhere, despite media reports that the Indiana Department of Transportation’s chief of staff’s family made three times their land’s assessed value in sales to the state.

Not all work is hidden away. The state posts the budget, all legislation, committee hearings, and many other documents online. And the last decade has seen improved access to documents like state contracts and campaign donations through online search tools. But Indiana’s public officials don’t spend much time trumpeting their work when it looks bad.

Tom LoBianco covers Indiana politics for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter @tomlobianco.

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