Critics call for audit of county fair board

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Several neighbors denied entry to a Marion County Fair board meeting want city-county government to stop supplementing the private organization’s budget until the fair’s leadership agrees to an outside audit.

The southeast-side Indianapolis residents say an audit is needed to resolve allegations by the fair’s former executive director that the independent, not-for-profit association that runs the fair misused funds in a roundabout way to effectively give political donations to candidates. An attorney for the fair has denied those allegations in a court filing.

The neighbors say more transparency and oversight are needed to make sure the Republican-dominated board of the Marion County Agricultural Fair Association Inc. isn’t misusing public funds.

The fair has typically received about $100,000 a year in public-purpose grants from the city of Indianapolis. Last year, it received an additional $50,000 for facility improvements. The fair association’s total annual revenue topped $471,000 in 2020, according to the association’s Form 990 federal disclosure form.

For 2023, the city has again allocated $150,000 in grants for the group.

“With this particular issue with the Marion County Fairgrounds, it needs to be transparent. It must be transparent because we’re paying for it. The public is paying for it,” said Eddie Hager, who told IBJ he has sent emails to all 25 city-county councilors asking for an independent audit of the fair association.

Hager’s neighbors, Melissa Perry and Larry Pence, support his call for an audit and are members of a neighborhood group that is primarily concerned about noise from the increasing number of concerts and auto races held at the fairgrounds, which is just south of Interstate 74 and just east of Interstate 465.

Jeremy Tevebaugh

The financial abuse allegations come from a legal claim filed by the fair’s former executive director, Jeremy “Hoss” Tevebaugh. He countersued after he was fired in August and the fair sued to force him out of a residence on fairgrounds property at 7300 E. Troy Ave.

Tevebaugh’s counterclaim alleges the fair has participated in improper political activity by using money it received from the city earmarked for fairgrounds maintenance to pay candidates and businesses closely associated with candidates for services.

The candidates were paid “exorbitantly, in effect making campaign contributions to them,” the counterclaim states. The legal filing does not provide specifics about which candidates would have benefited from the alleged activity.

The fair’s attorney has denied Tevebaugh’s allegations in court filings but did not respond to IBJ’s request for an interview.

Of the seven fair board members listed on the fair’s website, three declined to comment directly on the neighbors’ concerns. Four did not respond to requests for comment.

Privately, some observers say Tevebaugh’s criminal history makes his allegations suspect. He was previously sentenced for felony check fraud and theft stemming from charges filed from 2010 to 2012.

Tevebaugh told IBJ he’s working to get his record expunged and said he has since held jobs that require a high level of trust, including as the fair’s executive director and as a voter registration specialist at the Marion County Board of Voters Registration.

“It was 12 years ago. I was a different person. I was associated with the wrong people at the time, and I was the one that was left holding the bag,” he said.

Tevebaugh said he has used the first name Jeremiah in recent years to indicate a clear break from his past and plans to legally adopt that name.

The Marion County fairgrounds are located on the southeast side at 7300 E. Troy Ave. In addition to hosting an annual fair, the property is the site of concerts and auto races at various times throughout the year. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Growing distrust

Some neighbors said it’s hard to separate fact from fiction in the allegations swirling around the fair’s leadership due to a lack of transparency. They said it’s also difficult to know what to make of the board’s connections to Marion County Republican leaders, if anything.

The fair board president is Cindy Mowery, treasurer of the Marion County Republican Party and the Republican appointee to the Marion County Board of Voters Registration. Republican City-County Councilor Michael Dilk is a fair board member.

And GOP City-County Councilor Paul Annee, who last year sponsored the council proposal to give the fair an additional $50,000, became the fair’s executive director after Tevebaugh’s departure. Annee did not respond to requests for an interview.

While neighbors have been mostly concerned about the increasing noise from the fairgrounds, some said the allegations contained in Tevebaugh’s counterclaim raised a whole new specter of unease.

They said the fair board created a level of distrust when it denied them access to the group’s annual meeting in December, misled them about the process of becoming dues-paying fair association members, and provided them with little information about the fair’s internal operations.

Hager and the others calling for an audit say they are among a group of about 20 residents who live near the fairgrounds and are concerned about the increasing number of concerts and auto races it hosts and the associated noise they say disrupts their neighborhood.

“When the concerts are going on, even in your house, the walls and your windows are vibrating and thumping,” Perry told IBJ.

The group decided to try to address their concerns last year by paying dues to become members of the fair association so they could have input at the association’s annual meeting in December.

But a little more than a week before that Dec. 30 meeting, some say, they received reimbursement checks for their dues along with letters from Mowery saying the fair was not voting on new members for the association in 2022.

Hager said he felt misled by the fair because no one ever suggested at the time he submitted his $25 in dues that his membership would not be accepted.

Ahead of the meeting, Perry requested that Mowery or Abdul-Hakim Shabazz—a former board president who resigned from the board Dec. 19 and is seeking the Republican nomination for Indianapolis mayor—send over meeting documents, lease documents and information about any ongoing litigation.

In response, Mowery sent a letter noting that the fair board is not required to provide such information because it’s private and not county-owned. (Shabazz has declined to comment on the fair neighbors’ concerns and Tevebaugh’s pending countersuit.)

Several members of the neighborhood group attempted to attend the annual meeting, anyway. They said they were greeted by an off-duty police officer at the fairgrounds entrance and turned away.

Government response

Republican City-County Councilor Michael-Paul Hart also attempted to attend the meeting that night in an effort to help his district constituents and the fair discuss the noise concerns. He also was turned away but acknowledged that he probably did not have the authority to attend since he’s not a dues-paying association member.

Michael-Paul Hart

Regarding the allegations contained in Tevebaugh’s lawsuit, Hart said he’s not sure what to make of them and would need more information before drawing any conclusions.

He said it’s too late to recall any of the city money already given to the fair association. If allegations of financial abuse are proven, he said, “guardrails” could be established for the funding.

“I think it would open up, at least, the conversation to, ‘What do we do differently if it turns out that there is misuse of funds?’” Hart told IBJ.

Asked why he thought so many local Republican leaders are on the fair board, he said: “I’ve just kind of attributed it to, you know, people know who they know and they generally ask who they know for help. And I think that’s kind of what it looks like to me, that maybe that’s Cindy [Mowery’s] circle of people, and that’s why they’re there.”

Sara Hindi, a spokesperson for the City-County Council, acknowledged that many members had received Hager’s email calling for an audit of the fair association—communication that records show Hager sent on Jan. 23.

Hindi said that she doesn’t believe the council has the authority to impose an audit on a private organization and that the fair’s neighbors would be better served by taking their concerns to state campaign finance regulators.

She did not indicate whether the council would be willing to ask the fair association to voluntarily submit to an outside audit.

“A lot of this is very, like, rhetorical,” she said. “We can’t speak on something we don’t know if it’s right, or if it’s true or false.”

Brian Mowery

When IBJ requested an interview with Council President Vop Osili or Vice President Zach Adamson through Hindi, those requests were denied. Neither returned IBJ’s calls for comment.

Brian Mowery, the council’s Republican minority leader and Cindy Mowery’s nephew, said he couldn’t comment on Tevebaugh’s financial allegations due to the pending litigation and because he did not have knowledge of the details.

Regarding the noise concern, Mowery said the fair is simply sponsoring more events to help its profitability.

At the Statehouse, Democratic Rep. Mitch Gore has authored a bill that requires the fairgrounds to install noise barriers or limit events to five per year outside of the fair itself.

Mitch Gore

In his time as a state representative, Gore said he has knocked on thousands of doors in his district and found the fairgrounds is the biggest source of complaints. On two occasions, Gore said, he has written letters to the fair board, but the members never responded.

Gore said the increasing number of concerts and racing events marks a turn from traditional county fairgrounds operations, a move he said seems motivated by profits.

“Last session, [the Legislature] offered a bill that allowed [the fair] to put up a digital billboard to bring in revenue,” Gore told IBJ. “But I don’t know why it seems to not focus on the public good anymore, or what people typically associate with county fairgrounds. So, it’s all about the dollar signs.”

Additional allegations

In the countersuit in which Tevebaugh made his allegations of financial abuse, he also accuses Cindy Mowery of sexual harassment, including what he characterized as “unwelcome advances.”

Mowery declined to respond directly to the allegations due to the pending litigation. “Frankly, I have a lot to say, but as you know, we’re in litigation. Therefore, I cannot discuss it,” Mowery said in an email.

Tevebaugh repeated his sexual harassment claims in a federal lawsuit filed Jan. 20, but in that case he alleges the incidents also occurred while he worked for Mowery at the Marion County Board of Voters Registration.

Named as defendants in the federal lawsuit are Indianapolis-Marion County government, the Marion County Agricultural Fair Association and Mowery.

The lawsuit alleges that Mowery, acting as the Republican co-director of the Voters Registration Board, initially attempted to terminate Tevebaugh’s employment after he reported his allegations to members of the fair board in July.

Tevebaugh alleges Mowery did not use proper procedure to terminate him, so he was reinstated by city human resources staff.

Then in October, Tevebaugh alleges, he left the voter registration office for an hour to meet with the Indiana State Board of Accounts regarding the fairgrounds’ use of municipal funds. Mowery then terminated his employment for “attending an unauthorized meeting,” the suit alleges.

City human resources workers declined to provide any information regarding Tevebaugh’s government employment.

They said they only respond to personnel record requests made in writing under the state’s public records act. IBJ has submitted a request and is waiting for a response.

The State Board of Accounts’ power to audit the board is limited. If a not-for-profit receives more than half its revenue from public funding, the State Board of Accounts can audit the organization fully. Because the public-purpose grants from the city make up less than half of the fair board’s budget, the agency can examine only the use of those funds, a spokesperson told IBJ.

The State Board of Accounts wouldn’t confirm or deny the existence of an investigation into the board. No past audits of the board appear in the agency’s public records.•

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