Saturday, October 25, 2014

Felonies, not necessarily misdemeanors, are more problematic for elected leaders

Being the target of a police investigation doesn't disqualify Elkhart County Commissioner Terry Rodino from serving his elected post, and even if an elected leader is convicted of a misdemeanor it's not necessarily enough to require his or her departure. It's when an official is convicted of a felony that they'd have to go.
Posted on Nov. 18, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.

Being the target of an Elkhart police investigation doesn’t disqualify Elkhart County Commissioner Terry Rodino from serving his elected post.

Indeed, by his colleagues’ accounts, Rodino continues to carry out his duties as commissioner.

And even if an elected leader is convicted of a misdemeanor, it’s not necessarily enough to require his or her departure. Among the current slate of elected leaders now serving across Elkhart County, at least three have been convicted of such transgressions that occurred while in office — two for drunk driving, one for shoplifting.

Get convicted of a felony, though, and all bets are off. If you’re an elected or appointed official holding any state, county, township, city or town office and you’re convicted of a felony, state law — Indiana Code 5-8-1-38, to be exact — dictates that you shall be removed from the post.

To be sure — Rodino, re-elected to his third term on the commission on Nov. 6 — doesn’t even face any charges.

But questions swirl. He was the target of a recent police inquiry stemming from an allegation of inappropriate sexual activity in an Oct. 29 incident in Elkhart, according to a source familiar with the investigation. And the Allen County Prosecutor’s Office, at the request of the Elkhart County Prosecutor’s Office, has been asked to look into the matter to decide if charges or other actions are merited.

It comes on top of allegations, contained in a pending eight-year-old court case, that Rodino made inappropriate sexual advances on female employees at his wood pallet business. Those allegations come in a series of 2008 affidavits in a lawsuit against Rodino that stems from a business dispute.

Dale Stickel, as chairman of the Elkhart County Republican Party, has been following the recent developments, and he has his questions. He keeps up on all the comings and goings of the county’s elected GOP officials, including Rodino, and he’s the one tasked with spearheading efforts to fill vacancies, when they occur.

“The premise of the law of the land is innocent until proven guilty,” Stickel said Friday. “I have no idea what’s going on. Certainly I have my questions, but I haven’t found out anything.”


To the east in St. Joseph County, Jeff Dean, the former Penn Township trustee, got caught up in misdeeds and ended up resigning, according to the South Bend Tribune, which followed the case. He stepped down in June after pleading guilty to two felonies — conflict of interest and official misconduct, which stemmed from the hiring of his girlfriend for work she didn’t complete.

Here in Elkhart County, there haven’t been any cases of elected officials having to step down because of felony convictions, at least in recent memory. But three elected officials currently serving have been convicted of misdemeanors during their stints in office:

Ÿ In 2004, Brian Thomas, a member of the Elkhart City Council, was convicted of conversion for taking a $3.79 pack of cigars from an Elkhart Martin’s Super Market on June 9, 2004, according to court records and Elkhart Truth archives. He got a one-year suspended jail sentence and was required to do 80 hours of community service.

Ÿ In 2010, Tina Bontrager, the Goshen clerk-treasurer, was convicted of drunk driving on March 7, 2010. She received a one-year suspended jail sentence and her driver’s license was suspended for 90 days.

Ÿ Also in 2010, David Henke, a member of the Elkhart City Council, was convicted of drunk driving on June 27, 2010. He, too, received a one-year suspended jail sentence and his driver’s license was suspended for 90 days.

Indiana Code 5-8-1-38 doesn’t apply in the case of misdemeanors — Class A misdemeanors in the three officials’ cases — and all three, Republicans, stayed in office. In fact, the convictions haven’t seemed to dog any of the officials — Bontrager and Henke offered apologies after their incidents — and each was re-elected in 2011.


It’s not clear when Rodino’s case will next see action.

The Allen County Prosecutor’s Office received the police investigation last Wednesday. Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill asked that the case be moved there, citing a state law that allows such action “to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

But Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards was out of the office much of last week and hasn’t yet had a chance to review the case, Robyn Niedzwiecki, spokeswoman in her office, said Friday. On reviewing it, she’ll decide if she takes the case and if she does, a closer examination would follow to decide if additional action is necessary.

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