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Bill on officeholder suspensions advances

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GREENFIELD — Elected officials charged with certain felonies could be removed from office under a bill making its way through the Statehouse.

The bill stems from Hancock County’s experiences with elected officials charged with crimes, but officials in several other counties have also been charged in recent years.

Originally penned by former Sen. Beverly Gard in 2011, the bill made it through the Senate that year but not the House. Now, Gard’s successor, Sen. Mike Crider, is hoping to move the measure forward alongside the bill’s main author, Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange.

Senate Bill 226 passed out of the Senate 40-9 Tuesday and next will be considered by the House.

If signed into law, elected boards – county commissioners or city councils, for example – would be able to vote to temporarily suspend an officeholder charged with a felony related to their office.

Former Hancock County auditor Linda Grass, for example, stepped down from office in 2009 shortly after she was charged with 21 felony counts of theft, obstruction of justice and other crimes related to her office.

Ultimately Grass pleaded guilty to three felonies; if she hadn’t stepped down from office, Gard argues, it would have been difficult to have her continue handling the county’s money in the months it took for the legal process to unfold.

“They’re popping up all over the state, unfortunately,” Gard said. “It’s a sad state of affairs to realize elected officials would do these kinds of things. In situations when you have officeholders charged with felonies, in particular embezzlement, you really don’t want them around the source of the problem.”

Glick has also had some first-hand experience with the issue, as several public officials in the northern Hoosier county of LaGrange have been charged with crimes in recent years.

The LaGrange County Clerk was charged with theft about two years ago, but continued to come to work every day for seven to eight months. Eventually she pleaded guilty, but Glick said because she still held office, the public lost trust.

“People were looking across the counter at a person who was charged with stealing public funds,” she said. “Frankly, it put everybody ill at ease.”

Many public officials and constituents had asked if the clerk could be forced out of office while charges were pending.

“Looking at the (state) statute, we realized, no you can’t,” Glick said.

Crider, R-Greenfield, said while the bill has Hancock County roots, it’s not just a local issue.

“It’s a challenging situation any time one of those things comes up, as to how do you effectively protect the integrity of the position while not taking away the due process rights of the person involved,” Crider said.

The bill still protects those who are not guilty of the charge, Crider said. If suspended, the officeholder would still get a salary and benefits while the legal situation is straightened out. If charges are dropped, the officeholder could be reinstated.

Former Hancock County Sheriff Bud Gray was charged with an obstruction of justice felony in 2010, for example; the charge was eventually dropped after his term ended.

“It just kind of calls for a timeout and allows the process to play out, but at the same time it allows the ability to react and … perhaps appoint somebody outside of the office so it instills confidence in the taxpayer that the situation is being handled properly,” Crider said.

In 2011, the bill passed the Senate but it was then paired with a bill related to nepotism in local government. The bill failed to make it through the House, Gard said, partly because representatives took issue with the nepotism side of the proposal and partly because the house speaker did not move it forward.

Even though Gard is retired, she still wants to see the measure pass. She said she will contact Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, to try to convince him of the importance of the bill, not just to Hancock County but to the entire state.

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