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Doing Their Homework: The Untold Story Behind 2013's Biggest Local Scandal

Glenda Ritz may still be a rookie on the government gridiron, but her team knows how to orchestrate a good old-fashioned political hit.

Glenda RitzWhen David Galvin walked into his cavernous Statehouse office for the first time on January 14, 2013, he discovered a mysterious yellow sticky note on his desk. Galvin’s boss, Glenda Ritz, had just been inaugurated as Indiana’s next Educator-in-Chief after ousting Republican opponent Tony Bennett in what was one of the most surprising upsets in recent Hoosier political history. And as the new superintendent of public instruction’s communications director, Galvin was eager to get to work.

His curiosity piqued, Galvin inspected the note. Its terse message was, he quickly realized, a 39-word transition memo scrawled by an anonymous predecessor: “David, Here are directions for sending memos to the field and releases to the media. Everything else you need—and more—is in the ‘Statehouse’ drive in computer. Look in ‘Communications.’ You should be in good shape. Good Luck!”

And more indeed, Galvin realizes now, looking back on his first moments on the job as Ritz’s message man. Since that day, a year has passed, and the note—likely crafted by a Bennett staffer during the former superintendent’s last hours in office—turned out to be more accurate than its hurried author may have realized. Everything Galvin needed to destroy Bennett’s career was on his computer and the Statehouse’s servers. And the message wasn’t the only one Bennett’s people left behind.

A few days before he discovered the little yellow note, Galvin sat in a crowded conference room in the Indiana Government Center South. He was there for the final state board of education meeting of Bennett’s tenure, trying to get up to speed on the dozens of wonky education issues in which he’d soon find himself neck deep. In the row ahead of him sat a man he recognized as a Bennett staffer, but one whom he hadn’t met. Galvin looked down and saw the man highlighting e-mails and deleting them. One of the e-mails he saw being erased had an interesting subject line: “Problems with A–F,” a reference Galvin recognized as pertaining to one of Bennett’s signature accountability initiatives, a simple grading scale to capture a school’s performance.

Holy cow, Galvin thought. Then, just as quickly as he saw the e-mail, it was gone. Galvin became suspicious. Why would someone delete that e-mail specifically? When he decided to pull e-mails from Bennett’s staff to look for what the A–F problem was, there were huge gaps.

Did Ritz staffers tip off AP reporter Tom LoBianco about what documents he should request?

Reshuffling the department of education, Ritz’s transition team gave Galvin control of the IT department. (The wunderkind aide, Ritz and her team recognized, had a way with technology: During the campaign, he had helped steer her to victory through his use of social-media channels.) Galvin directed one of his lieutenants to task a mid-level IT person with rebuilding the e-mail inboxes of Bennett’s staffers.

The mining effort took months of state resources and restored 30 GB of data—tens of thousands of e-mails, many of them just short notes between Bennett officials. For a new, understaffed administration that had lost dozens of aides who left the department with Bennett, the trove of recovered data was quite a coup.

Over the next three to four weeks, Galvin estimates, he spent between 18 and 20 hours studying the e-mails. “After work, after hours, I would do word searches on some of the personnel who were involved in the development of A–F,” he says. That Galvin volunteers he only examined the e-mails outside of office hours is an interesting detail: Indiana law bars staffers from so-called “ghost employment,” spending their workday hours or using state resources to do political work—a possible felony charge that can send a person to prison for up to three years (and an accusation that would later be leveled by some at Bennett). Did Galvin look at the e-mails only outside of work because he suspected he would find ammunition that could be used against a political foe? “Honestly, I didn’t anticipate finding political stuff in the beginning,” he says, “because I have been taught from my time [as an aide] with Mayor Goodnight of Kokomo that party politics is not to be part of your discussion while you’re on campus.”

But Galvin quickly stumbled upon a bombshell. In early February, he found a so-called Red Meat list, a database of personal contact information for high-dollar Republican donors. The document sat on the Statehouse server, in a subfolder of Communications called “For TB”—the folder his predecessor directed him to in the transition note. Galvin sat on that info for three to four weeks as he tried to chart his next step. Should he deliver the evidence of ghost employment to the Marion County prosecutor? The state police? The inspector general? For reasons that he doesn’t make clear, Galvin didn’t immediately disclose his discovery to Ritz.

The last week of March or the first week of April, he finally decided to turn in the evidence to Inspector General David Thomas, who launched an ethics investigation. Meanwhile, Galvin planned another hit on Bennett. In his early days at the department, he uncovered a $1.7 million teleconferencing system purchased by Bennett’s team from Cisco Systems, a California company that employed Bennett’s former chief of staff Todd Huston. Galvin shopped the story to Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully, who frequently chides Statehouse officials for creating and benefiting from a culture of coziness. On April 13, Tully’s story ran with the headline: “What Glenda Ritz got from Tony Bennett—a $1.7 million boondoggle.”

Galvin admits he leaked the story to Tully, and Tully confirms that telling of events. They “didn’t do it in a dark parking garage, with a manila envelope,” Tully says, “as exciting as it would have been.” Instead, they had a simple phone call.

One day, around the same time, Galvin strolled downstairs into the dull-yellow bowels of the Indiana Statehouse, where reporters hang out during legislative sessions. Galvin wanted to get some coffee. At the basement snack shop, he ran into Tom LoBianco, the Associated Press’s political reporter in Indianapolis. Galvin recognized his face but didn’t know who he was. Upon learning LoBianco was a reporter, Galvin, always eager to engage journalists, asked LoBianco about his latest work. The reporter, he says, cut to the chase.

“Do you guys have e-mails?” LoBianco asked.

“I’m sure we do,” Galvin replied.

“Do you have any of Dr. Bennett’s e-mails?”

“I’m sure we do,” Galvin said.

“Is there any way I could see them?”

“Send me an APRA,” Galvin said, using shorthand for the state’s Access to Public Records Act. “We’ll see what we can get you.”

Galvin also thought of the Red Meat list but claims he “didn’t want to say anything to anybody, because the inspector general was still investigating.”

In one chance meeting, as Galvin tells the story, LoBianco acquired the foundation for some of the juiciest and most explosive reporting to grace Indiana’s newspapers (and later the nation’s) last year. The stories that LoBianco would write embarrassed the Teflon-skinned former governor–turned–Purdue president Mitch Daniels, dealt setbacks to Bennett’s brand of education reform, and eventually toppled the former superintendent, who was then serving as Florida’s education czar.

Curiously, records show that on May 22, LoBianco didn’t send his first public-records request to Galvin, but instead to lieutenant communications director Daniel Altman, a friend he made while covering Democrat John Gregg’s gubernatorial campaign (Altman worked as an aide to Gregg). In his request, LoBianco asked for all correspondence between Bennett and Daniels. Altman forwarded the request to two staff attorneys and Galvin. Another staff attorney, Katie Williams-Briles, responded by asking the reporter to give a specific date range.

LoBianco specified November 4, 2008 to January 14, 2013—a timeline that corresponded to Daniels’s entire second term and Bennett’s years in office. After consulting Altman, Williams-Briles sent a document called “TB & MD Emails.pdf” with just 34 e-mails to the reporter. LoBianco continued to make information requests throughout the spring and summer. On June 25, for example, he fired off another records inquiry for six specific items, including correspondence discussing the late American historian Howard Zinn, a seemingly random request. But it soon became clear LoBianco was fishing for something he knew was there. From a series of damning dispatches that spanned July 16 to September 11, he went on a reportorial tear, publishing no fewer than five blockbusters that uncovered Daniels’s attempts to keep Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, from being used in Indiana’s classrooms and unearthed the Bennett administration’s attempts to change a school grade for one of his campaign donors. In November, the inspector general filed a complaint against Bennett with the Indiana State Ethics Commission, charging that he used state resources for his 2012 reelection bid. (The inspector general and Bennett will present their cases at a public hearing on January 9.)

As LoBianco continued to churn out hit after hit, politicos quietly talked about how he was able to get so much dirt on Bennett. But the blogosphere erupted with more pointed talk of foul play by the Ritz administration. Cam Savage, a former Daniels campaign hand and Bennett’s onetime adviser, wrote a column for TheStatehouseFile.com, asking, “How did the reporter know which records to request? Is this distinguished journalism, or just the byproduct of old-school political leaking?”

As LoBianco continued to churn out hit after hit, politicos quietly talked about how he was able to get so much dirt on Bennett.

Savage points to the first of several batches of e-mails that Ritz’s team sent LoBianco as evidence of the leak. “They provided only a couple dozen e-mails, all potentially embarrassing to Bennett and/or Daniels,” Savage says. “Three of the e-mails are not even between Bennett and Daniels, and therefore are not relevant to the request. That Ritz and her team selected what they considered to be the most damaging e-mails they could find proves they were engaging in a political hit, not simply responding to records requests as they claim.”

Interestingly, no e-mails have yet surfaced that seem dull—there were no “hey, let’s go to lunch” missives over the course of nearly four years of correspondence between Bennett and Daniels, political teammates who by all accounts worked closely together. Luke Britt, the state’s public-access counselor appointed by Republican Governor Mike Pence, says the Ritz administration could have curated the records they sent to LoBianco, based on the rationale that they would have otherwise inundated the reporter. But inside the ranks of the Ritz administration, some troops have grown unsettled about what they see as unnecessary hardball tactics—the way reconstructed e-mails were mined to dig up dirt on the previous administration, as well as how public-records requests were handled.

For them, an unanswered question simmers: Why would Galvin have spent so much time with old e-mails unless he was looking for dead bodies?

Ritz declined to be interviewed by IM, and Galvin maintains that neither he nor Altman leaked any information to LoBianco or coached him on what documents he should request. Instead, the communications director says LoBianco’s keen instincts and solid sourcing propelled his work. “There are some reporters who know how to work harder than others,” Galvin says.

Whatever concerns linger about the Ritz team’s role, they don’t detract from LoBianco’s work. A scoop is a scoop. LoBianco directed questions about his stories to an AP spokesman, Paul Colford, who says that the company doesn’t address questions about the sourcing and mechanics of its reporting. At a journalism conference this fall, however, LoBianco spoke, claiming he eventually acquired most of Bennett’s inbox.

To be fair, members of Bennett’s administration were never afraid to play hardball. But they made the mistake of underestimating their enemies. “They should have anticipated these leaks,” Britt says. And the episode shines a bright light on Ritz’s team, which some see as outgunned in a political battle over education policy. Are they really doe-eyed innocents? No way, says a veteran Bennett adviser who asked to remain anonymous. “On our worst day, we didn’t fight nearly as well as they do,” he says. “Clearly they spent a lot of time mining e-mail.”

Galvin still keeps the sticky note that first captured his attention. It hangs on a bulletin board behind his desk. For him, it’s a comedic conversation piece that captures the brusque, blustery Bennett administration he campaigned against.

“‘And more,’” Galvin says, emphasizing the two words on the sticky note and chuckling. “The Bennett staffer probably had no idea.”

 

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

This article appeared in the January 2014 issue.