By Jack Molitor
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
Former Elwood Parks Superintendent Dan Nance was found not guilty Wednesday of criminal charges over his handling of public funds.
The two-day trial in Madison Circuit Court 3 wrapped up with a quick deliberation by the jury — less than 30 minutes.
After the verdict was read, about 30 supporters of Nance, who had been following the trial, stood and applauded. Nance hugged his friend and former park board president Fred Mort, who testified earlier in the day, and moved on to embrace family and shake several hands. Nance said he felt good, but was otherwise “speechless.”
Nance was arrested in April on accusations he accepted public funds to be used for the cleanup of the city’s annual Glass Festival, and that he didn’t keep proper records or receipts of expenditures. An eight-month investigation of the parks department, started in 2012 by the State Board of Accounts, yielded a report about funds used from 2007-2011. The Madison County Prosecutor’s Office ultimately decided to charge Nance.
Much of the debate during the trial centered on whether the checks given to Nance were public funds.
According to court testimony, Nance received five $2,000 checks, one each year, from the Elwood Chamber of Commerce over the span of 2007 to 2011. The checks, which were made out directly to Nance and not the city or the parks department, were cut to be used for cleanup of Callaway Park following the festival.
Over the course of the trial, defense attorney Christopher Gilley argued that Nance was not acting as the parks superintendent when he took those checks, but as a separate and private corporation charged with handling the cleanup. It was akin to a second job for Nance, Gilley said, and there was no law preventing him from having such a job. As such, it was up to Nance to see how the money was spent.
Nance was the final witness to testify. He admitted that of the $2,000 he would receive each year, about $900 went toward hiring help. Anywhere from $300 to $500 went toward purchasing cleanup supplies. The rest he would reinvest in the park, he testified.
Nance said he considered the parks in Elwood his life, and Callaway Park in particular as his “back yard.” During his time as superintendent, Nance lived in a designated home in the park.
“This man was ‘Mister Parks’ in Elwood,” Gilley said in his closing arguments. “It’s scary, to me, that he could be doing something with the city watching him year after year, and six years later tell him I was doing something wrong. That’s a scary thought.”
Throughout the trial, the prosecution argued that the funds were public, and that Nance took advantage of public trust and limited oversight from city officials. Deputy prosecutor Jeff Lockwood said Nance didn’t consider them public funds “because he didn’t want to consider them public funds.”
“Politics stops at the door of the prosecutor’s office,” Lockwood said in his closing argument.
Gilley declined to comment after the trial.
“I think there were a combination of things that made a difference,” Lockwood said of Nance. “He’s a really nice guy who has dedicated his life to serving the public and working at that park. Maybe he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong when he took that money, and maybe he wasn’t. It was a tough case.”
Nance was suspended by Elwood Mayor Ron Arnold in March 2012 as part of the investigation. The Indiana State Board of Accounts, which audits all government agencies in the state, launched an investigation.
In July 2012, the board found that more than $8,000 in receipts for parks-related expenses were unaccounted for in 2011, before Arnold took office.
In August 2012, Arnold offered Nance a chance to return to his job if he returned the funds and issued a public apology. Nance refused and was terminated in September 2012.
In January, Nance and attorney Scott Barnhart filed a tort claim against Arnold, claiming Nance’s reputation and character had been damaged. Nance requested $300,000 in compensation for what he calls a “politically motivated and retaliatory suspension and firing” by Arnold.
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