Public has right to know what happened in Vigo clerk's office

A special prosecutor appointed to handle the case of an altered election filing document in the Vigo County Clerk's office earlier this year delivered her decision this week: No criminal charges would be filed against anyone, and no further action was warranted. Case closed.

There was an element of good news to this development. The special prosecutor — Prosecutor Ann Smith Mischler of Sullivan County — provided an informed decision, based on an Indiana State Police investigation, that there wasn't enough evidence to constitute a crime, despite the fact that altering a public record, as was done in this case, can be considered a Level 6 felony under state law.

Mischler said nothing else about the matter, so that leaves the public to assume she decided that the act of altering the public record did not rise to the level of a crime.

Does that mean that the person altering the document simply made a mistake and there was no intent to circumvent the law? Or does it mean the person altering the document was not aware that doing so was illegal under state law?

At this point, we don't know. Any number of specific things happened, or did not happen. No clarification was given, and no explanation provided as to who was involved or what occurred in the clerk's office that triggered all this fuss.

The case grew out of a candidacy document filed in the County Clerk's office by Tess D. Brooks-Stephens, who was seeking the Democratic nomination in a Terre Haute City Council district race.

After being filed, the document was altered, a change that led the Election Board to place her name on the ballot below that of Cheryl Loudermilk, her opponent in the primary race.

Citing election law that says primary candidates shall appear by alphabetical order of surname, Brooks-Stephens asked the Election Board to change the order and that her name be placed first.

The board said no, but Brooks-Stephens appealed to Vigo Circuit Court. After hearing evidence, Judge Sarah Mullican found the board’s decision arbitrary and contrary to law and ordered ballots reprinted with Brooks-Stephens' name placed before that of Loudermilk's.

Meanwhile, the police investigation into the altered document began. When completed, the court appointed Mischler to examine the findings.

The Tribune-Star made a request to the special prosecutor for the ISP investigation report that she used to make her decision. That request was denied, and we were referred to the police agency.

We sought the report from the ISP, but that agency also denied our request, citing what it claims are exceptions in access laws for investigatory records.

What really did happen in the clerk's office?

The public has a right to know.

The Tribune-Star is making a formal complaint to the office of the Indiana Public Access Counselor, which will review the matter and issue an advisory opinion about the records release.

In the meantime, we urge Mischler and the State Police to reconsider their refusal to provide important information to the public about what went on in that county office and why a candidate had to go to court to force the Election Board to follow the law.

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