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Former Bennett chief of staff at center of $1.7M contract complaint

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A former top Indiana education official's role in the sale of $1.7 million worth of videoconferencing equipment to the state by Cisco Systems Inc., where he worked before and after holding that state position, has added to calls to strengthen Indiana's ethics laws amid a recent spate of boundary-pushing incidents.

Todd Huston left his Department of Education job as chief of staff to former Indiana Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett in 2010 for a position with Cisco, where he had previously worked. He was involved in the 2012 sale of a new TelePresence videoconferencing system to the DOE that officials later determined was a waste of taxpayer money.

Although Huston says he was careful to keep his work for the state and for Cisco separate over the years, good-governance watchdogs say his role in the sale violated the spirit of Indiana's ethics rules designed to stop state employees from cashing in on their public experience in the private sector.

Last month, a top aide to Democratic Schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz filed an ethics complaint with the inspector general's office alleging that state workers violated contracting rules in making the purchase. The complaint doesn't mention Huston directly. The allegation comes amid a slew of high-profile ethics investigations this year which have found little formal wrongdoing, but left state ethics officials faulting gaps in the law itself.

Huston told The Associated Press he wished he had not participated in talks about the TelePresence sale and noted that he made no money in the transaction. Huston said he sought ethics advice throughout his time at the DOE and distanced himself from Cisco projects. He said he remembered the videoconferencing equipment deal but didn't recall playing a major role in the decision.

"I didn't go there to work with the DOE," Huston said of Cisco. "I went there to work with higher ed."

Watchdogs say Huston's involvement points to glaring flaws in Indiana's ethics laws already exposed by other recent high-profile cases involving Bennett, former Indiana Department of Transportation chief of staff Troy Woodruff and state Rep. Eric Turner, who helped kill a nursing home construction ban that could have cost his family business millions.

In those cases, Bennett received a $5,000 fine for using state equipment for campaign purposes but was told he could have avoided any penalty if he had rewritten department rules to allow campaigning with public resources. Turner, meanwhile, was cleared of any violations by the House Ethics Committee but chastised for violating the "spirit" of the rules. State investigators cleared Woodruff, as well, but said his actions went "right up to that line" of violating the rules.

Huston left Cisco in 2009 to work as Bennett's chief of staff and returned to the company in December 2010. In a Nov. 2010 email Huston sent the state ethics counsel, he said he wouldn't be working with the Department of Education in his job at Cisco and that he hadn't worked directly on Cisco matters while working for the state.

But documents obtained by The Associated Press through public records requests show the two roles were often intertwined.

A month after starting his state job in 2009, Huston set up a meeting between Bennett and Cisco's top government salesman, Bruce Klein. Other calendar entries show that from 2009 to 2010, he met regularly with Cisco salespeople for lunch and dinner.

In another email sent a month after leaving his state job, Huston asked then-Louisiana Schools Superintendent Paul Pastorek for a meeting — first to speak with Cisco's sales team and later to talk about Indiana education policy. Even after leaving his state job, Huston kept a state email address, which he had forwarded to his Cisco email address.

He also joined meetings of top state and Cisco officials in May and July of 2012 over the contract to buy the videoconferencing equipment.

Huston on Wednesday called the email to Pastorek "an error in judgment" and said many of his lunch and dinner meetings were with friends who worked at Cisco.

Stuart Yoak, executive director of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics at Indiana University, said Huston's ties to Cisco and the DOE could raise questions about his current work in the Indiana House of Representatives, to which he was elected in 2012.

"Citizens have to have confidence in their state employees, both elected and appointed, that their tax dollars are being used wisely to make purchasing decisions," he said.

Huston now works as a senior vice president for The College Board, helping pitch states on their testing products.

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  • Addressing Several Others...
    To J. E. Smith: I agree wholeheartedly that this is a one-party state. Regardless of which party owns the state, there is the potential for that particular party to lie/cheat/steal to advance its own members. Hence, all of the issues that have arisen thus far this year (anyone remember Mr. Turner, for example???). In addition, Robert, as a Fishers voter, I would like to make it very clear that I most assuredly did NOT vote for Mr. Huston. I did not trust him as far as I could throw him (and, I have a bad back, so perhaps I couldn't throw him as far as others), but I do agree: he will be re-elected with an amazing landslide. We "Hoosiers" are much more comfortable with the lying, cheating status quo, than daring to venture out and try the unknown...
  • Investigate Huston
    I think there is more here than meets the eye, though a close reading of various emails, along with Huston's actions clearly indicate that he has run afoul of the weak state ethics laws. First of all, his claim that he did not profit from the DOE technoloy purchase. Yeah, he may have been clever enough to not get a commission on that deal, but I wonder if his end of year bonus took care of that for him. Also, the emails point out numerous meetings between DOE officials and Cisco officials while he was at DOE - yet he claims to not have been involved in the PO. I wonder if this case should go beyond the state's IG or ethics commission and instead be looked into by the FBI or US Attorney or County Prosecutor. Beyond all of this questionable ethical behaviour, Huston and Bennett must live with the total political embarrassment and humiliation of having presided over the worst electoral defeat in modern day Indiana history....think about the environment that existed when Ms Ritz pulled off the upset of the century: anti Obamaism and anti ACA sentiment at an all time high in a traditionally GOP state; strong and growing majorities in the legislature, and victories at all other state offices....yet in this environment, and despite outspending their opponent 10-1, Bennett and Huston go down in flames....this magnitude of dissatisfaction with an incumbent is just unprecedented. Todd and Tony, I hope you take solace in the fact that your actions in office managed to really, really piss off Hoosiers to a degree unheard of....they say that good government is good politics -- boy did you guys get that wrong. And on top of that, a litany of ethical transgressions. Yes, this is what happens in one party rule....
  • Should we be surprised?
    Indiana is now, and has been for some time, a one party state. This is exactly what happens when one party controls everything. And, sadly, most of the populace seems quite content not only with the corruption, but also with our state being a laughing stock in much of the rest of the country. Tragic.
  • "We" can change it, but "we" won't.
    "What power does a voter have regarding this issue?" For starters, the good citizens of Fishers, who elected this crook to represent them in the statehouse in 2012, could vote him out of office this fall. That won't happen, of course, which will further embolden Huston and his ilk, making it even less likely that meaningful ethics legislation will be enacted in this state.
  • Hilarious
    and so on it goes...Turner, Woodruff, Daniels, Huston, Bennett, Pence, Delph...same story different day...fake Christians, phony Constitutionalists, who know nothing about either the Bible or the Constitution, fleecing the populace with a wink and a nod to each other...these are the same people who would legislate their own version of morality and invade the homes and bedrooms of the citizenry...who would marginalize those who they see as different, or a threat to their need to control everyone and everything, especially the money trail...fascinating that Bennett "was told" he could have avoided a fine if he had just re-written the rules so that you could "campaign with public resources"...Really? Who told him that, I doubt it was the tax payers, most likely the ethical "Watchdogs" we have in this ridiculous state...that certainly would be "ethical"...as a department head, you can either follow the rules, or just re-write them however you want so you won't violate them? This is hilarious...brazen disregard and contempt for even the people who voted them in...and the other farm animals (the voting sheep) looked from man to pig and pig to man, and realized they could no longer tell the difference...
    • Law Makers Don't See A Problem
      Joseph - Good questions! My wife and I have written to my state representatives--Rep Brian Bosma and Sen Jim Merritt--in both 2013 and 2014 complaining that Indiana's conflicts-of-interest laws and regulations needed strengthening. In the letters I pointed out several instances of abuse including those raised in articles by Star Reporter/Columnist Matthew Tully. The responses we received from both Bosma and Merritt were non-responsive. They both disagreed that the state has a problem. Note that both of these men are in Republican leadership positions. Hence, I have no confidence in anything meaningful happening.
    • Throw the bums out
      Bennet already got what he deserved, except probably not enough. The other accountability needs to assigned to Mitch Daniels. Mitch danced away to lala land at Purdue just in time. Mitch never has answered for all of the funds he received from the now incarcerated Mr. Durham. Where is that money Mitch?
    • How can "WE" change this?
      It seems that the number of ethics "violations" keeps increasing. How can we (state citizens) demand that changes be made? What power does a voter have regarding this issue? Is there a way to create a state referendem so we as citizens can have a voice in this matter and decide what the ethics are and how violations will be punished? Allowing the Reps and Senators to police themselves is a complete joke. They are just as bad or worse than the dishonest than those that represent us in DC.

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