Stan Heffner quickly apologized “for my lack of judgment.” His words came in response to a report delivered Thursday by the state inspector general that concluded Heffner acted improperly when in May 2011, as the interim state schools superintendent, he testified in favor of legislation likely to benefit a private education company seeking to hire him. On Saturday, he expanded his expression of regret. He stepped down as the superintendent of public instruction in Ohio.
The choice to exit was appropriate. An apology wasn’t enough. The report significantly eroded Heffner’s credibility, or the element of trust so crucial to a public official, whether elected or not. Doubts would persist about his decision-making, about his capacity to separate public obligations from private interests.
Initially, Gov. John Kasich and Heffner appeared persuaded that he could continue in the job, after some punishment applied by the State Board of Education. Heffner has performed well in many respects. He has been an energetic advocate for reform, minus a sharp ideological edge. Yet his error simply was too large.
The legislation he pushed included provisions expanding the testing of teachers. The inspector general report shows that Heffner engaged in his advocacy even though he had signed an employment agreement with the Educational Testing Service, a longtime testing vendor in Ohio. Enact the bill, and ETS surely would benefit.
In time, the search for a state superintendent encountered trouble, and Heffner was tapped for the position. Four months ago, he told investigators from the state ethics commission and the inspector general that he had “limited” contacts with the testing company. Actually, he had launched his move, embarking on housing deals, allowing the company to pay for travel.
At the time of the hearing, Heffner had a conflict of interest. Was he acting on behalf of Ohioans or the Educational Testing Service?
It didn’t stop there, at least in the category of stewarding public dollars. The inspector general found that Heffner directed assistants in his office to perform tasks related to his personal business, including help with his planned move to San Antonio, the location of ETS headquarters.
These are not gross offenses. They do resonate more deeply when the governor and his allies lecture others about spending efficiently and effectively every public dollar. In addition, there is the matter of accountability. If Heffner violated the law, he should be required to pay with more than his resignation. Public confidence in government is a precious commodity. All public officials must be reminded in these moments that there are stiff consequences for going astray.