The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles authorizes police license plates for four types of law enforcement agencies.
Townships are not one of them.
That didn’t stop Center Township in Marion County from registering a police plate to a 2011 Dodge Charger driven by Trustee Eugene Akers, then using the plate for three years after the BMV declared it invalid.
Center Township paid $37,000 for the Charger, which Akers said he uses in his side job as a deputy constable serving civil-court papers. In that role, he’s essentially a free agent working for elected Center Township Constable Mark “Tony” Duncan. Constables work with township small-claims courts, but their offices are separate enterprises, apart from the township’s administration.
The trustee’s use of an invalid license plate and the misleading information his office submitted to the BMV call into question the ethics of the agency, said Michael Josephson, founder of the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute, a not-for-profit promoting ethics.
“These little things almost always lead to bigger things because they come from an entitlement mentality,” Josephson said.
The history of questionable behavior in Center Township government stretches back years before Akers’ election in 2010. Former Trustee Carl Drummer, who served from 1996 to 2009, parked his Corvettes and the cars of friends in a township-owned garage on Massachusetts Avenue. Last month, former Chief Financial Officer Alan Mizen was arrested in connection with the alleged theft of more than $340,000 in federal program funds.
Policing is not among the limited duties of township government, which mainly assists the poor but also maintains cemeteries and can oversee fire departments.
Applicants for new and transferred law enforcement plates should be employees of the state police; Department of Natural Resources; or a city, town or county police department, according to the BMV.
Akers said he didn’t fill out Center Township’s May 2011 application, which stated that the Charger would be used for “investigations” and “official police use.”
Whoever signed the document listed his or her job title as “chief.” The BMV, citing driver-privacy laws, redacted the signature in the documents obtained by IBJ.
The person who signed that document should be brought to light because the information is clearly misleading, Josephson said.
BMV officials took seriously Center Township’s use of a police plate.
The BMV made a mistake in allowing the plate to be transferred to a township vehicle and on May 25, 2011, asked Center Township to return any police plates in its possession, Deputy Commissioner Josh Gillespie said.
An IBJ reporter noticed this June that Akers was driving a Charger with a police plate, and inquired about it with the BMV. That’s when officials realized it had never been returned, Gillespie said.
A member of the fraud and investigation unit visited the township office on July 8, he said.
The bureau does not have authority to physically remove license plates, Gillespie said, but a township official removed the plate from the Charger and handed it over.
“They were visited and reminded of the statute and reminded that [the plate] was inactive,” he said.
Akers doesn’t draw a line between his role as trustee and his other job as deputy constable.
When asked why he needed a police license plate, Akers said, “Did you realize that I am a constable also?”
As trustee, a job that paid him more than $92,000 last year, he oversees emergency relief for the poor. He’s worked as a deputy constable under Duncan for some 20 years, he said.
Deputy constables serve small-claims court summonses and help carry out evictions. They also have authority to make arrests.
The elected constables collect a fee for every piece of civil paper they process, and they use those fees to pay themselves, their deputies and their expenses.
In Center Township, however, it appears taxpayers are covering the cost of the vehicle Akers uses as constable.
Center Township bought the 2011 Dodge Charger, a model commonly used by law enforcement, for $37,000, according to the sales-tax exemption certificate that was submitted in May 2011 along with the application for license plate transfer.
The police plate was transferred from a 2008 Dodge Charger, also owned by the township.
Akers said his “safety officer,” whom he didn’t name, works as a constable, too.
The fact that Akers worked as a constable for many years doesn’t “forgive the obligation to the constituency of the trusteeship nor excuse him from blurring those lines,” said Cynthia Baker, director of the program on law and state government at the IU Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
“Basic questions of democracy and accountability would justify knowing who’s paying for what? Or who’s benefiting from his office?” Baker said.
Constable duties figured prominently in the township’s January 2011 application for the transfer of police plates to the 2008 Charger and to a 2007 Charger from two vehicles that were “disposed.” (Center Township did not list the VINs of the “disposed” vehicles.)
“Deliver court summons,” “body attachment,” which is like a civil-court version of an arrest warrant, and “other court related functions” were listed as descriptions of official business.
Whoever signed the January application also listed his or her title as “chief.”
Akers said the township was in possession of police license plates when he took office. The BMV used to issue police plates to constables, and Akers isn’t the first trustee employee to moonlight as one.
That was the case with Drummer, who worked in the township office under former Trustee Julia Carson and succeeded her as trustee when she was elected to Congress in 1996. Drummer worked as a deputy constable from 1993 to 1996, according to his biography posted on the township’s website.
The BMV stopped giving police plates to constables after a 2009 bribery scandal in the Perry Township Constable’s Office, said Washington Township Constable John O’Hara.
O’Hara said two of his nine deputies have police plates that predate the BMV policy change, but they can’t be transferred. He thinks the special plates are helpful because they signify to the public that the constables, who drive through neighborhoods looking for addresses and walk around knocking on doors, are on official business.
O’Hara said his deputies use their personal vehicles for constable work.
Louis Mahern, a former state senator and longtime advocate of eliminating township government, said the system suffers from a lack of oversight.
A trustee driving around with invalid police plates is more of the same type of behavior seen in townships across the state, Mahern said. “It undermines people’s faith in local government.”•