Ballard: Shock, disappointment over Indy Land Bank scandal
It's been 24 hours since news broke of a Federal Bureau of Investigation raid at the City-County Building confiscating files from the Indy Land Bank program. The federal investigation also led to the arrest of five people including two city employees.
After issuing a short written statement Tuesday, Mayor Greg Ballard faced questions from reporters Wednesday.
Mayor Ballard held a news conference this morning hoping to shine light on several significant construction projects going around the city this season. Instead, all anyone wanted to talk about was the federal investigation into the Land Bank program, what he knew, when and why he didn't say something sooner.
The mayor says he was notified "less than a week before" the raid that FBI investigators would be coming in.
Ballard said he became aware of problems with the Indy Land Bank "when I got the phone call" from the FBI.
The mayor says after the shock wore off, there was "a lot of disappointment."
"After the outrage, the shock - we pride ourselves on doing the right thing; we passed that ethics ordinance, the whistleblower protection. We did all of that very early in my administration. I hope most people know that because we wanted to toughen things up a little bit. We'll continue to do that. I tell people all the time...we have to do the right things and we have to do it the right way. That's kind of a mantra on what we do in the city," Ballard said.
Reggie Walton headed up the program and John Hawkins was a senior project manager. Both are accused of taking kickbacks and bribes for bypassing rules.
"There was a lot of disappointment because a lot of people saw these guys as young men of promise full of opportunity and for some reason, it didn't happen," the mayor added.
"When people go by their personal texts and emails, it's difficult. At some level, you put the trust in. Like I said, we have the ethics protections in, we put the whistleblower protections in; we did that to send a signal to people. But you have to keep checking on people and talking to people and trust them because people in this city make decisions every day and we trust we're doing the right thing. That's what we'll continue to do."
When asked how he could not have known about the scheme that was going on in his administration, the mayor said, "If you read the indictment, you can see how it was transacted - emails and texts and that sort of thing. We're obviously not privy to all of that."
"If the FBI knows something is going on in one of your departments. You should have the internal controls to know it's going on too," said Matthew Tully.
Tully is a political columnist for the IndyStar. He's been covering city government for eleven years. He says while he believes the mayor didn't know anything about this corruption, that may be the biggest problem of all.
"May be a sign stronger leadership is warranted from the mayor," said Tully.
But once the mayor became aware of the corruption and the FBI raid that lasted four hours while agents collected computers and files from the Department of Metropolitan Development, he didn't come forward right away. After our repeated attempts to contact him, he finally instead issued a brief, written statement.
"When all of this was going on, I wasn't hiding. I was at the Rookie Luncheon. Everybody knows I go to that every year and most of your operations were there," said Mayor Ballard.
"This is a PR decision on their part. They wanted to hide and they did and any suggestion otherwise is comical. We all know what happened, the mayor hid," said Tully.
As for the Land Bank, the mayor says it may be on hold for a short time as his administration reassesses procedures to prevent this kind of problem.
"We'll have to see what the feds do first," the mayor said, adding that he intended to "cooperate fully."
The mayor also said he wants state lawmakers to clarify the issue of land bank sales.
FBI agents and Indiana State Police spent Tuesday morning at the city's Department of Metropolitan Development specifically targeting the land bank office. That's where the U.S. Attorney says two city employees worked with three others to turn the program into a money-making venture.