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Hamilton County official accused of 'troubling' email exchange

April 6, 2016

Democrats have accused a Hamilton County commissioner of inappropriately offering to help a St. Joseph County official with her re-election campaign.

The St. Joseph County Democratic Party issued a press release Wednesday afternoon, along with an email exchange between Hamilton County Commissioner Mark Heirbrandt and St. Joseph Commissioner Deb Fleming. In the emails, Heirbrandt discusses Fleming’s campaign with her at the same time the company he works for was bidding on a St. Joseph County project.

St. Joseph County Democratic Chairman Jason Critchlow described the situation as “troubling and at minimum gives an appearance of impropriety.” However, the party has not filed a formal complaint with election officials.

Heirbrandt, who works as a senior account executive for Indianapolis-based renewable energy firm Ameresco Inc., declined to comment on the accusation, saying he has an “employment agreement that restricts me from making any comments.” But his campaign issued a statement saying Democrats had made a "ridiculous accusation" that was "a blatant attempt to mischaracterize the truth."

Fleming told WSBT-TV Channel 22 in South Bend that Democrats are "trying to make these emails come across a certain way that they're not."

According to the information released by Democrats, Heirbrandt sent an email to Fleming in January about the green energy project his company was bidding on and included comments about her campaign.

Fleming is chairwoman of the committee that was formed to evaluate the proposals for the project.

On Jan. 9, Heirbrandt said in an email to her that he met with other local elected officials to discuss the project but wanted to follow up with her because they had not had a chance to talk.

In the same email, he said he heard she may have opposition in the upcoming election and offered to provide assistance.

“Anything you can do to help is greatly appreciated,” Fleming replied Jan. 10.

On Jan. 17, Heirbrandt emailed her again to discuss fundraising opportunities and said he spoke with vendors about her. He asked her how much her campaign might cost and whether she’d be in a contested race in the primary or the general election.

“There are several vendors that are willing to help you put something together,” Heirbrandt wrote. “It will just need to be planned.”

Fleming responded that her ideal campaign would require at least $100,000 to $120,000 to cover the costs of mailers, TV and radio ads, and billboards.

Heirbrandt told her that several vendors should be able to help and that he’d talk to her soon about it.

The next email in the chain is from Heirbrandt on March 21, asking about the status of the decision to select a proposal for the energy project. No company has been selected yet.

Democratic Party officials said they don’t know whether the company or any of its vendors made contributions to Fleming’s campaign. However, Heirbrandt made a personal contribution of $250 to Fleming's campaign in 2015, well before Ameresco bid on the St. Joseph County work.

The Heirbrandt campaign statement said it is "completely appropriate and common for a county commissioner to contribute $250 to a fellow county commissioner."

Fleming, a Republican, is unopposed in the primary election, but will face a Democratic challenger in the fall.

Heirbrandt, also a Republican, is facing local business owner Bill Smythe in the primary for the District 3 commissioner seat.

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