Report: Ohio’s top education official violated ethics rules

An investigation by the state watchdog found Heffner, as interim superintendent, had a conflict of interest last year when he pushed a bill that would increase testing Ohio’s public school teachers.

On May 11, 2011, Heffner testified before state lawmakers in favor of House Bill 153, which required teachers at low-achieving schools retake licensure tests administered by the New Jersey-based company Education Testing Service.

Two weeks earlier, Heffner signed an acceptance letter for a job at ETS earning $180,000 a year, according to a report released Thursday by the Ohio inspector general’s office. Heffner later turned down the ETS job to stay on as Ohio’s top education official.

Heffner said Thursday he has accepted the inspector general’s findings and does not plan to not resign his post.

“I was wrong, and I’m sorry for my lack of judgment,” Heffner said. “I’ve apologized to my staff, my friends and colleagues at the department, and the [State Board of Education]. I have learned from my mistakes, and I will work with the Board to take whatever steps they feel are necessary to resolve this matter and move forward.”

Inspector General Randall Meyer referred the case to Heffner’s boss: the State Board of Education. Deputy Inspector General Carl Ensler said a copy of the report was delivered to the Franklin County and Columbus prosecutors to decide whether further legal action is necessary.

State Board of Education president Debe Terhar said she was disturbed by the findings, and the board will discuss them during its September meeting.

“State Superintendent Stan Heffner is a dedicated educator who is committed to the education reforms Ohio needs for our children, but in this matter he demonstrated a woeful lack of judgment,” Terhar said.

In April 2012, Heffner told state investigators and the Ohio Ethics Commission he had “limited” contact with ETS when he testified before state lawmakers. However, email records show Heffner was in continuous contact with ETS executives from November 2010 to his legislative testimony in May 2011.

Through email, Heffner expressed his interest in employment with ETS, scheduled a meeting with company officials while representing Ohio at an education research conference and told his future employers to contact him on his state-issued cell phone and email account.

State ethics rules and Ohio Department of Education policies prohibit using state property to conduct unrelated, outside private business.

In an email from his personal account, Heffner told an ETS executive he was meeting with an aide to Gov. John Kasich. Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols told the Dayton Daily News he did not know when staff learned of Heffner’s pending ETS job but said Kasich was unaware of the conflict when Heffner testified.

Heffner also told investigators in April he never used department employees to help schedule meetings with ETS, but his secretary might have taken “some calls” that did not take much time. However, email records and employee interviews conducted by the inspector general show state employees also communicated with ETS officials to arrange travel and matters related to Heffner’s transition to his new job.

Heffner’s former secretary told investigators he asked her to arrange personal flights to South Dakota and Washington, D.C. Heffner was assigned a new assistant as interim superintendent, whom a former deputy superintendent said sometimes spent whole days working Heffner’s transition.

The new assistant told investigators she fielded frequent phone calls from real estate agents about the sale of Heffner’s Westerville home and purchase of home in Texas. She said Heffner instructed her to gather personal documents for the sale and dealt with contractors hired to repair his Westerville home.

When asked why she did the tasks, the unnamed assistant said, “My only option was to do what he needed and try to do it well, so he, you know, so he would keep me.”

State Rep. Debbie Phillips, D-Athens, filed the complaint in July 2011.

“At a time when local schools are facing significant cuts in state resources and many are seeking local levies to provide opportunities for our children, we need to ensure that all state funds are being spent wisely and appropriately and we must keep clear oversight of all decision making surrounding the limited resources available,” Phillips said Thursday in a statement.

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