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

August 20, 2014

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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