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Disciplinary Commission asked to investigate its new leader

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A Dearborn County commissioner is accusing the county attorney of wrongly accusing two officials of violating federal law and wants the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission to launch an investigation of its soon-to-be leader who starts in that office in mid-June.

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 restricts political activity of some federal, state, and local employees who work in connection with federally funded programs.

The issue has surfaced recently throughout the state, most notably in the case of the Terre Haute mayoral election where the Indiana Supreme Court last year upheld a Vigo Circuit judge’s decision that the state statute relating to the Hatch Act and Little Hatch Act didn’t prevent the mayoral election winner from initially being a candidate or subsequently taking office after he’d defeated the incumbent mayor.

After an internal review in Dearborn County, Witte wrote that he believes the county is out of compliance with 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 councilman Bryan Messmore, who works in the victims’ services area of the prosecutor’s office that receives a federal grant that 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 brought the issue up during county meetings on May 17 and earlier this week. McHenry has responded that he hasn’t violated the Hatch Act and says he’ll remain a candidate for the commission.

Another commissioner, Jeffrey Hughes, has publicly said he’s “deeply troubled” by Witte’s handling of the situation and said those actions may be something for the Disciplinary Commission to review. Hughes has requested an investigation by that body.

“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.

Earlier this month, the Indiana Supreme Court named Witte as the Disciplinary Commission’s executive secretary, and he starts that job in Indianapolis on June 21.

Witte said today he wasn’t aware of any Disciplinary Commission complaint filed against him and that he didn’t know that any county officials had taken an issue with his work as county attorney on this topic. He declined to comment outside of what his May 17 letter states, saying that he wants to review the statements, the issues at hand, and determine what he can say publicly without infringing on attorney-client privilege or professional conduct rules.

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’s Division of State Court Administration for another staff attorney to act as investigator on these complaints. That is “very rare” but it has happened periodically through the years, and Pruden doesn’t recall it ever reaching the verified complaint stage in his 15 years with the office.
 

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