Elkhart County counsel: Rodino’s China dealings don’t amount to conflict of interest
ELKHART — Indiana law prohibits county leaders from profiting from certain deals involving the governmental entities they serve.
Elkhart County Commissioner Terry Rodino allegedly profited from a deal that his business foes say stemmed from his duties as commissioner — promoting Elkhart County in China. So is he culpable, not just of an impropriety but of a criminal act?
Not so fast, says Elkhart County’s legal counsel and the attorney for Rodino.
“There was full and open disclosure to everybody by Terry on the issue,” Spencer Walton, his Mishawaka lawyer, said Wednesday, March 20. “It was straight up and open.”
Gordon Lord, the county’s legal counsel, indicated that the conflict-of-interest statute in question, as he interprets it, doesn’t apply to Rodino. The law, Indiana Code 35-44.1-1-4, states that a public official is guilty of a Class D felony if he or she profits from or has a “pecuniary interest” in “a contract or purchase connected with an action” of the governmental entity he or she serves.
As far as he knows, and he’s checked around, Rodino “has never directly or indirectly had a contract with county government while a county commissioner from which he could derive a pecuniary interest,” Lord said in an email Wednesday.
Sue Beesley, an Indianapolis lawyer who gave a public presentation on I.C. 35-44.1-1-4 to county leaders from across Indiana last December, described the sort of scenario when the law would come into play. If a county commissioner, say, owned an asphalt plant and voted to award a contract, as commissioner, to the company to do road work, that would a pretty obvious conflict-of-interest case.
Rodino’s case doesn’t fit that mold and it would be up to a prosecutor to determine if the law applies in his circumstances. “I really couldn’t comment without knowing all the facts of the case,” she said.
‘SUPPORT THE MISSION’
John Henning, lawyer for Amit Shah and Tim Dugle, estranged business partners of Rodino who are suing him in federal court over alleged mismanagement of several businesses they co-own, declined comment. But in their lawsuit, filed Feb. 14, Shah and Dugle single Rodino out in connection with the profits he made allegedly serving as middleman in the $1.63 million sale of five recreational vehicles made in Elkhart County to a Chinese company.
It’s just one of many charges in the suit, which Rodino has yet to formally answer.
Money to engineer the Chinese deal came, at least partially, from a pallet company Shah and Dugle own with Rodino and they indicate they were essentially short-changed profits from the transaction.
Notably, they charge that the complex web of deal-making in the RV deal and other instances constitutes a violation of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. Furthermore, they say Rodino used his position as county commissioner to secure the RV deal.
Rodino’s earnings in the RV sale, at least $104,779.90 as outlined in the suit, maybe more, stemmed from his efforts, as county commissioner, to promote to trade and cultural exchange between Elkhart County and Jinhua in China’s Zhejiang province, Dugle and Shah charge. Thus, the reasoning goes, he profited personally from his governmental duties.
Rodino has traveled to China at least three times since 2010 as part of his efforts to foster a China-Elkhart County connection and inked a sister-city accord with Jinhua.
Rodino has spoken publicly of his travels to China and efforts to promote two-way trade between Elkhart County and the country. In an open letter dated April 12, 2010, Stephen Akard, director of international development at the time at the Indiana Economic Development Corp., praises Rodino’s efforts.
“On behalf of the (IEDC), I am pleased to support the mission of Terry Rodino, president of the Elkhart County Board of Commissioners,” Akard writes. In the letter, supplied by Elkhart County Administrator Tom Byers, Akard goes on to tout China as an “important investment and trading partner for Indiana.”
Rodino has said he paid his way each time he traveled to China and county leaders have confirmed that. Likewise, Mike Yoder, one of his fellow county commissioners, has said he understood Rodino traveled there mindful of two things — promoting Elkhart County and potential business opportunities.
Walton, Rodino’s lawyer, emphasizes that Rodino never used county funds in his travels. Likewise, Lord notes that Rodino, as far as he’s been able to determine, never entered into any sort of financial arrangement with Elkhart County, which, as he sees it, is central in the conflict-of-interest law.
“I just don’t think he’s gone there. That’s my take,” Lord said.