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Candidate can't stay on ballot

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GREENFIELD — A Brandywine Township board member should have been removed from office a year ago following two felony plea convictions, state officials say, and he is not eligible to seek office this spring.

Trent Henderson, a Republican member of the Brandywine Township board since 2006, pleaded guilty to two Class D felonies in April 2013 relating to a 2012 arrest on suspicion of operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

Hancock County officials were surprised Monday to hear of the felonies and his ineligibility to hold office. What comes next is a little unclear.

State law requires elected officials to be removed from office upon pleading guilty to a felony, and they are no longer eligible to be a candidate.

Henderson, 36, said Friday he was not aware that he was ineligible to hold office or seek re-election. He said he planned to step down immediately. As of Monday, Henderson had not yet notified Republican Party officials or the county clerk’s office of his intention to step down.

In fact, local officials were surprised they hadn’t been notified earlier and were struggling to figure out what to do next to remedy the problem.

“I wish I’d known about his two felonies,” said Janice Silvey, chairwoman of the Hancock County Republican Party. “I suppose just because it was a township thing, people didn’t think about it.”

A Daily Reporter review of arrest and citation records for township candidates revealed several charges against Henderson since 2008, including two Class A misdemeanors for operating a vehicle while intoxicated and a Class A misdemeanor in 2011 for domestic battery.

An arrest in 2012 resulted in Henderson being charged with two Class D felonies for resisting

law enforcement and operating a vehicle while intoxicated while having a previous conviction. He pleaded guilty to those felonies in April 2013, making him ineligible to hold office or seek election.

Brent Eaton, one of his attorneys at the time, said Monday he was not aware that Henderson was an elected official.

Eaton is also on this year’s ballot, running for Hancock County prosecutor. He said their conversations were more tied to working out the plea agreement; they did not talk about him being a township board member or Henderson’s plans to seek re-election the following year.

“You can ask clients all kinds of information, but you only know what you’re told,” Eaton said.

Two chapters of Indiana code deal with felony convictions of state, county, township, city and town officeholders. The same law required former Coroner Tammy Vangundy’s name to be removed from the ballot in 2012 because of her guilty plea in her drunken driving case.

Bradley King, co-director of the Indiana Election Division, said a person convicted of a felony is to be removed from office immediately upon being found guilty or pleading guilty to the felony, and it’s unusual that Henderson should have continued to serve with nobody challenging his position. It’s generally the responsibility of residents of a community to challenge the status of an elected official or a candidate, King added.

“The county cannot act independently; it needs to act on a single complaint or a challenge of any single voter of the township,” he said.

That challenge never materialized in the past year. Hancock County Clerk Marcia Moore said criminal background checks are not performed on candidates; the county GOP never removed Henderson from office, and there were no challenges against Henderson during this year’s sign-up period for candidates.

In fact, when Henderson filed for re-election, he acknowledged a provision on the form that said he is “not ineligible to be a candidate due to a criminal conviction that would prohibit me from serving this office.”

“We do depend on candidates being honest,” Moore said.

It’s now too late to remove his name from the ballot, and people have already begun voting. Moore said when election results are in, the county election board could choose not to certify Henderson as the winner, even though the seat is uncontested. There are three seats on the township board and three candidates on the Republican ballot.

If he is deemed not a winner in the primary election, the GOP could slate a candidate for the general election to take his place, said Dale Simmons, co-legal counsel for the state election division. Likewise, the Democrats and minor parties can still slate candidates this summer.

Meanwhile, Henderson will have to be removed from the remainder of his term, Simmons said. When that happens, the county GOP would hold a caucus to find a replacement board member for the remainder of the year. 

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