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Agency: Terre Haute mayor was ineligible to run

Friday, November 28, 2008

TERRE HAUTE (AP) -- A federal agency says the law prohibited Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett from running for office when he was elected last year.

The advisory opinion by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Bennett's candidacy violated the Hatch Act prohibiting political activities by federal workers.

That opinion agrees with a ruling this month by the Indiana Court of Appeals in which it found that Bennett was an ineligible candidate and threw out the results of the 2007 election. Bennett, who remains in office, has said he will appeal.

The federal agency opinion was contained in a letter dated March 7 from the special counsel's office in response to a request by Bennett's attorney, Chou-il Lee.

Former Democratic Mayor Kevin Burke, who filed a lawsuit contesting Bennett's candidacy after he was narrowly defeated in the November 2007 election, said this week that the letter was proof that Bennett has "lied to all of us." He said Bennett for months had created the impression that the government had not ruled that he violated the Hatch Act.

But Bennett said the letter wasn't conclusive because the special counsel's office based its findings on the findings of facts in a local judge's ruling rather than its own investigation.

"They didn't do their own investigation or anything," Bennett said. "So we don't know whether I was in violation of the Hatch Act or not."

At the time Bennett was the Republican candidate for mayor last year, he was operations director of Hamilton Center Inc., a Terre Haute-based mental health system that received more than $4.8 million from the federal government for its Head Start program from 2000 to 2005. The letter said that work in connection with the federally funded program disqualified him from being a candidate.

Erica Hamrick, an attorney in the Hatch Act unit of the special counsel's office, said the agency normally would have done an independent investigation but the case did not come to its attention until after the election.

Instead, the opinion was based on findings by Vigo Superior Court Judge David Bolk, who ruled that he saw no evidence indicating that Bennett had "willfully flouted" the Hatch Act.

"I think the judge's findings of fact were pretty thorough and pretty detailed," Hamrick said. "If they weren't, we wouldn't have relied on them," she said.

Lee said he contacted the agency primarily to find out whether there was any substance to claims that Terre Haute might lose federal funding if Bennett were found to have violated the Hatch Act.

Hamrick said her letter makes clear the agency does not intend to seek any sort of sanctions against Terre Haute, including cutting off federal funding to the city.

"I think that the advisory opinion makes it clear that that's not our intention," she said.

Bennett defeated Burke by 107 votes among some 12,000 cast for the 2007 election in a rematch of their 2003 campaign. The loss made Burke the fourth consecutive Terre Haute mayor defeated in an re-election bid.

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