GREENFIELD — When Hancock County Coroner Tamara Vangundy pleaded guilty in her drunken driving case Wednesday morning, she did so with the belief she was putting an emotionally taxing ordeal behind her.
That’s not what happened.
Vangundy, who planned to run for re-election, later learned her plea agreement effectively ended her political future because of a misinterpretation of election law by her attorneys. She now cannot serve as coroner or run for political office.
For nearly four months, Vangundy, 49, has endured criticism from fellow public officials and calls for her to step down as county coroner based on her arrest May 3 after she showed up impaired at the scene a death investigation.
Her plan after Wednesday’s guilty-plea hearing was to serve as coroner – a post she passionately called “more than a job” – until the end of the month. She then would resign and continue campaigning for re-election in November.
But the moment she pleaded guilty to a felony charge of official misconduct Wednesday morning, Hancock County was left without a coroner.
That was news to Vangundy, whose lawyers had assured her the plea agreement, which considered the felony charge against her as a misdemeanor during sentencing, would in no way affect her candidacy.
As it turns out, the stipulation in her plea agreement that reduced the felony conviction for official misconduct to a misdemeanor did not shield her from the felony as far as election law is concerned.
Not only is she prohibited from running for office, she can’t serve as coroner for even the next week, Indiana Election Division officials said Thursday.
That was a realization Vangundy’s attorney, Carl Brizzi, came to late Wednesday after questions about Vangundy’s eligibility were raised by the Daily Reporter.
Initially, Brizzi was adamant Vangundy could continue to serve and run for re-election. Aside from official misconduct, she also pleaded guilty to operating a vehicle while intoxicated, a misdemeanor. Because both were treated as misdemeanors for sentencing purposes, Brizzi argued Wednesday that Vangundy could remain on the ballot.
After reviewing the statute later that evening, Brizzi said, he realized he had overlooked a critical part of the law affecting his client.
Election law states that having a felony reduced to a misdemeanor “does not affect the operation of” removing an official convicted of a felony from office.
Brizzi said everyone involved in negotiating Vangundy’s plea agreement – including Vangundy’s other defense attorney, Bob Elsea; and Special Prosecutor John McKay of Madison County – was under the same impression.
That, Brizzi now admits, was the wrong one.
“The fact that somebody had a felony reduced to a misdemeanor conviction… would … prohibit them from public office… is something that the special prosecutor and the other lawyers involved had not considered,” he said. “So shame on us for not considering it. There’s no excuse for it. It was a mistake, for sure.”
The Indiana Code details a variety of qualifications for candidates seeking an elected office.
It states, “A person is disqualified from … being a candidate for an elected office if, in a guilty-plea hearing, the person pleads guilty … to a felony.”
Vangundy’s plea agreement contained nine stipulations, the third of which reads, “The defendant shall plead guilty to Count I: official misconduct, Class D felony.”
Elsea could not be reached for comment.
McKay has not returned calls for comment since accepting Vangundy’s case, but Brizzi said the special prosecutor offered to ask the judge to throw out the plea agreement after learning of the error.
It was an option Brizzi said his client considered but ultimately decided against accepting.
With the special prosecutor unwilling to take the felony charge off the table, Vangundy’s only other option was to take the case to trial and risk a felony conviction.
“Ultimately, her choice would have to be this: either take the plea to the two misdemeanors or roll the dice on a trial where you have the possibility of being convicted of a felony,” Brizzi said.
The Indiana Election Division will not make an official ruling about whether Vangundy can serve as coroner or seek office, but both of its co-directors, one Republican and one Democrat, said they felt the law was clear in how it applied to her case.
“… We would hold that … a person is disqualified from being a candidate once they plead guilty to a felony,” said co-director Trent Deckard, a Democrat. “It doesn’t happen a lot, but code is put into place for such occasions if it does happen. I think it’s pretty clear that they put it in there for just such occasions. My interpretation of that code is that that office would be vacant.”
Added Bradley King, Deckard’s Republican counterpart:
“That’s true even if there’s a subsequent reduction to a Class A misdemeanor.”
As far as how that applies to the coming election, King said the law requires Vangundy to file a notice of withdrawal from the race with the county clerk.
Meanwhile, Vangundy’s duties will fall to her chief deputy, Rudy Nylund.
Nylund said he spoke with Vangundy following her guilty-plea hearing about taking over the office.
“I know there is a little bit of confusion on exactly when her duties would end, whether it was effective immediately or at the end of the month,” he said. “My plan was just to take calls as they come in through the sheriff’s department and go from there.”
A second deputy coroner, Jason Costin, may take calls as well, Nylund said.
Though Nylund is serving in the interim, county Republican Party chair Janice Silvey said she cannot set a caucus to officially appoint a new coroner until Vangundy takes official steps to vacate the position.
Should she take any coroner calls or attempt to assist one of her deputy coroners, she could find herself in more legal trouble.
Following Vangundy’s guilty-plea hearing, Brizzi received an email from Hancock County Prosecutor Michael Griffin, who threatened to prosecute Vangundy for impersonation of a public servant if she takes a coroner call going forward.
Brizzi characterized that as the last straw for Vangundy.
“I think that she is incredibly frustrated with the politics that are apparent,” Brizzi said. “For her own emotional well-being, for the well-being of her family, … she just wants to be done.”
In an interview Thursday, Vangundy stressed that she is retiring, not resigning. She said she plans to continue to serve the community.
“I was going to resign and give the community the opportunity to re-evaluate and give them a chance to heal and rebuild my trust in them,” she said. “With other circumstances from outside parties, I have chosen to just retire from the position, because right now, I feel that is in the best interest of the citizens and the voters of this county, as well as my family.”
Vangundy said that while she is stepping from the political spotlight, she plans to remain involved. Legally, she could serve as a deputy coroner, but she said she has not decided whether that’s the route she’ll take.
“I still stand by my apology and still wish to regain the public trust by continuing … serving my community even if it’s in another capacity,” she said. “I will not let the citizens of this county down.”