Multiple Democratic gubernatorial candidates are calling for more information from Gov. Eric Holcomb’s administration in the wake of an investigation that alleges the state dismissed safety violations against Amazon during the same time it was pursuing the online retail giant’s HQ2 project.
An article published by Reveal from the not-for-profit Center for Investigative Reporting detailed the September 2017 death of an Amazon employee at a warehouse in Plainfield and the state’s investigation into whether Amazon was liable.
A safety inspector for the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration initially issued four safety citations for a total fine of $28,000, but those charges were later dropped. The safety inspector, John Stallone, provided recordings of a phone call between Amazon officials and his boss, Indiana OSHA Director Julie Alexander, that suggests the agency helped Amazon get the fines removed, according to the article.
That phone call occurred while Holcomb’s administration was bidding for Amazon’s HQ2 project, which promised to bring a $5 billion investment and 50,000 jobs to the winning region.
Stallone also claimed in the article that he was called into a meeting with Indiana Labor Commissioner Rick Ruble and Holcomb, who allegedly brought up the Amazon deal and said it would mean a lot to the state to land the headquarters.
Holcomb has strongly denied that allegation.
“Let me be as clear as I possibly can be, I have never been involved in a Department of Labor case,” Holcomb said in a statement on Monday. “Furthermore, I have never had a meeting with Commissioner Ruble and an IOSHA employee. My office told ‘Reveal’ that this information was false and yet they still published the fabricated allegations. The reporting is both irresponsible and deliberately misleading. We are exploring any possible recourse to remove these heinous lies.”
Holcomb’s potential challengers to his 2020 re-election bid said the administration needs to provide more information about this case and allow an independent investigation.
Democratic candidate Woody Myers, former state health commissioner, called the allegations in the story “disturbing and deeply troubling.”
“If true, Indiana residents must question just who the current administration is there to protect—hard-working Hoosiers or big business,” Myers said in a written statement. “Hoosiers deserve to learn if there was any political interference in the investigation and if not, then why fines were levied and then rescinded. They deserve to know if the Governor personally interfered in the case or the investigation. This assessment and review of the evidence, including the alleged recording by the IOSHA investigator, must be done by investigators independent of the Governor’s office or any agency under his control.”
Democratic candidate Josh Owens, who is also CEO of SupplyKick, said he had two big concerns after reading the Reveal story—the allegations about how IOSHA handled the case and the accusations surrounding Holcomb’s direct involvement.
He said the Governor’s Office should release details of Holcomb’s schedule to prove his statement that he never attended a meeting with Stallone and the DOL.
“I find it hard to believe that he would be involved in something like this,” Owens said. “This story requires that they have to put out more public information to prove that they weren’t involved.”
Owens, whose company works with Amazon fulfillment centers like the one in Plainfield where the death occurred, also called for an independent investigation into how IOSHA dealt with the citations issued against Amazon and whether the state agency acted appropriately or not.
“It is the governor’s responsibility to make sure the state and state offices are fair, are just, are following the law as intended and are appropriately holding businesses and citizens accountable,” Owens said.
State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, who also is a candidate for governor, said an investigation is warranted.
“A special investigation is needed to confirm what role the governor and his administration played throughout this process,” Melton said in a written statment. “We must assure Hoosiers that their elected officials will operate in the best interest of the people and not of corporations. As a state, we can attract jobs in alternative ways such as investing in education, infrastructure and public transit; these methods potentially employed by our governor are not the answer.”
The Indiana Democratic Party has also called on Holcomb to provide a more detailed explanation.
“Holcomb and his administration enforce the laws,” party chairman John Zody said in a statement. “Their job is to protect workers, not political interests. The governor owes Hoosiers who put their lives on the line everyday a public explanation of this report and reassurance his administration is looking out for their safety, not big businesses.”
Indiana General Assembly Republican leadership has not commented on the issue. A spokesperson for House Speaker Brian Bosma did not respond to IBJ’s request for comment, and a spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray told IBJ he had no comment.