County official wants review of new ethics leader

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

A Dearborn County commissioner alleges the county’s former attorney has wrongly accused two officials of violating federal law and has asked the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission to launch an investigation of its soon-to-be leader who starts in that office June 21.

michael witte Witte

Acting as county attorney, former Dearborn Superior Judge G. Michael Witte on May 17 wrote a two-page letter to an attorney in the Hatch Act Unit of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel in Washington, D.C., asking that office to investigate possible county violations of the federal law. The 1939-enacted law is designed to prevent conflicts of interest in government, and it restricts political activity of some federal, state, and local employees who work in connection with federally funded programs.

But those who’ve been mostly intimately involved in recent cases involving the Hatch Act say the law is so complex that even those familiar with the language must seek advice from the federal officials overseeing those issues.

“It’s unfortunate that Mr. Witte got entangled in all this, but the Hatch Act is so very broad and it’s tough to understand what it does or doesn’t apply to,” said Indianapolis attorney Bryan Babb, who is not connected to the Dearborn County issue but has handled Hatch Act litigation that’s gone to the Indiana Supreme Court in recent years. “With what I’ve read on this, it sounds like a legitimate question to ask the Office of Special Counsel.”

In the Dearborn County situation, Witte wrote that he believes the county is out of compliance with the Hatch Act provisions on four grants totaling $327,112. At issue are two county employees: county commissioner candidate Shane McHenry, who is one of three sheriff’s detectives working in the county Special Crimes Unit that receives three grants; and county councilor Bryan Messmore, who was appointed and is now running for that spot while also working in the victims services area of the prosecutor’s office receiving federal grant money that partially pays for his salary and benefits.

Those dual roles of each individual could be Hatch Act violations and could result in the county losing federal grants or being fined. He wants the Washington, D.C., office to review the matter because it’s outside the county authority, Witte wrote. He raised the issue during county meetings May 17 and May 25. McHenry has responded that he hasn’t violated the Hatch Act and said he’ll remain a candidate for county commissioner.

Messmore said June 1 that he received a phone call from the Office of Special Counsel and was told he’s not in violation. The federal office didn’t return a phone message or e-mail from Indiana Lawyer to confirm that statement.

Looking at the issues, Babb said it doesn’t seem unreasonable to him that Witte raised these questions that might be a problem for the county, and that seeking advice or review from the federal office was not out of line.

“On one hand, it’s understandable that they’re upset with Mr. Witte, as they feel it doesn’t apply to them and they can’t imagine that they were somehow breaking the law,” Babb said. “Not knowing anything about these two people or instances, I can certainly see where Mr. Witte believed he had an ethical obligation as the county attorney to ask for the Office of Special Counsel to investigate this. He was protecting his client, and that’s what attorneys are supposed to do.”

But not everyone sees it that way.

Jeffrey Hughes, Dearborn County commissioner, said he’s “deeply troubled” by Witte’s handling of the situation and said those actions should be reviewed by Disciplinary Commission. Hughes said he filed a complaint with that state agency May 27.

“I am bringing this issue forward because of my concern and the concerns expressed by the citizens of Dearborn County regarding our attorney’s conduct,” Hughes wrote in a statement.

Hughes said that instead of raising the issue at a public meeting without any prior notice to commissioners or those individuals at issue, Witte could have brought this up in an executive session first or even brought it to their attention earlier so that more notice could have been served.

“This could have been done better. I know Mike was trying to look out for our best interests, but in my opinion it seems like something is amiss here with the timing,” Hughes said. “This was the next step … Even if I was uncomfortable with this, I wondered if there was anything done that shouldn’t have been done and (the commission) has a responsibility to look into it.”

Hughes’ request to the Disciplinary Commission raises an issue for the state agency and judiciary, as the Indiana Supreme Court in May named Witte as the commission’s new executive secretary responsible for handling day-to-day administrative duties. He starts that job in Indianapolis June 21, and the Dearborn County statement about potential Hatch Act violations came on the same day he announced his resignation as county attorney effective June 7.

Witte said he didn’t know that any county officials had taken an issue with his work as county attorney on this topic. Aside from his May 17 letter, Witte said he didn’t want to infringe on attorney-client privilege or court conduct rules by speaking publicly about the issue.

“I have full faith in the disciplinary process, which is designed to separate meritless claims from those with merit,” he said. “I will let the process work its due course with confidence that procedural safeguards are in place to attend to unique situations of this nature.”

Interim Executive Secretary Seth Pruden is unable to speak on the issue because possible investigations are confidential unless a verified complaint is filed. But he spoke about the procedural issues that would be in play if a complaint is lodged against someone directly involved with the Disciplinary Commission. If someone accuses a commission member, executive secretary, or staff attorney of possible misconduct, the matter is referred to the Supreme Court for another staff attorney to act as investigator on these complaints.

In the Division of State Court Administration, staff attorney and Trial Court Services Director Tom Carusillo acts as that special investigator. During the past five years, he recalled one or two complaints a year against a particular Disciplinary Commission member or staff employee. The complaint gets referred, and he contacts those involved and then makes a recommendation for the state justices to review for possible action, he said. Carusillo and Pruden both agreed they don’t recall any of those complaints reaching the verified complaint stage anytime in the past decade.•


Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. State Farm is sad and filled with woe Edward Rust is no longer CEO He had knowledge, but wasn’t in the know The Board said it was time for him to go All American Girl starred Margaret Cho The Miami Heat coach is nicknamed Spo I hate to paddle but don’t like to row Edward Rust is no longer CEO The Board said it was time for him to go The word souffler is French for blow I love the rain but dislike the snow Ten tosses for a nickel or a penny a throw State Farm is sad and filled with woe Edward Rust is no longer CEO Bambi’s mom was a fawn who became a doe You can’t line up if you don’t get in a row My car isn’t running, “Give me a tow” He had knowledge but wasn’t in the know The Board said it was time for him to go Plant a seed and water it to make it grow Phases of the tide are ebb and flow If you head isn’t hairy you don’t have a fro You can buff your bald head to make it glow State Farm is sad and filled with woe Edward Rust is no longer CEO I like Mike Tyson more than Riddick Bowe A mug of coffee is a cup of joe Call me brother, don’t call me bro When I sing scat I sound like Al Jarreau State Farm is sad and filled with woe The Board said it was time for him to go A former Tigers pitcher was Lerrin LaGrow Ursula Andress was a Bond girl in Dr. No Brian Benben is married to Madeline Stowe Betsy Ross couldn’t knit but she sure could sew He had knowledge but wasn’t in the know Edward Rust is no longer CEO Grand Funk toured with David Allan Coe I said to Shoeless Joe, “Say it ain’t so” Brandon Lee died during the filming of The Crow In 1992 I didn’t vote for Ross Perot State Farm is sad and filled with woe The Board said it was time for him to go A hare is fast and a tortoise is slow The overhead compartment is for luggage to stow Beware from above but look out below I’m gaining momentum, I’ve got big mo He had knowledge but wasn’t in the know Edward Rust is no longer CEO I’ve travelled far but have miles to go My insurance company thinks I’m their ho I’m not their friend but I am their foe Robin Hood had arrows, a quiver and a bow State Farm has a lame duck CEO He had knowledge, but wasn’t in the know The Board said it was time for him to go State Farm is sad and filled with woe

  2. The ADA acts as a tax upon all for the benefit of a few. And, most importantly, the many have no individual say in whether they pay the tax. Those with handicaps suffered in military service should get a pass, but those who are handicapped by accident or birth do NOT deserve that pass. The drivel about "equal access" is spurious because the handicapped HAVE equal access, they just can't effectively use it. That is their problem, not society's. The burden to remediate should be that of those who seek the benefit of some social, constructional, or dimensional change, NOT society generally. Everybody wants to socialize the costs and concentrate the benefits of government intrusion so that they benefit and largely avoid the costs. This simply maintains the constant push to the slop trough, and explains, in part, why the nation is 20 trillion dollars in the hole.

  3. Hey 2 psychs is never enough, since it is statistically unlikely that three will ever agree on anything! New study admits this pseudo science is about as scientifically valid as astrology ... done by via fortune cookie ....John Ioannidis, professor of health research and policy at Stanford University, said the study was impressive and that its results had been eagerly awaited by the scientific community. “Sadly, the picture it paints - a 64% failure rate even among papers published in the best journals in the field - is not very nice about the current status of psychological science in general, and for fields like social psychology it is just devastating,” he said.

  4. Indianapolis Bar Association President John Trimble and I are on the same page, but it is a very large page with plenty of room for others to join us. As my final Res Gestae article will express in more detail in a few days, the Great Recession hastened a fundamental and permanent sea change for the global legal service profession. Every state bar is facing the same existential questions that thrust the medical profession into national healthcare reform debates. The bench, bar, and law schools must comprehensively reconsider how we define the practice of law and what it means to access justice. If the three principals of the legal service profession do not recast the vision of their roles and responsibilities soon, the marketplace will dictate those roles and responsibilities without regard for the public interests that the legal profession professes to serve.

  5. I have met some highly placed bureaucrats who vehemently disagree, Mr. Smith. This is not your father's time in America. Some ideas are just too politically incorrect too allow spoken, says those who watch over us for the good of their concept of order.