Ex-employees: Prosecutor pressured us to campaign for him

An audio recording authenticated by several former employees of the Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office seems to reveal they were asked to campaign during working hours.

At the time of the meeting, which took place at about 1:54 p.m. on April 23, 2019, the office was in a time of upheaval. Charges were filed against former prosecutor Brad Cooper just a week and one day prior, on April 15.

At the time, Prosecutor Joe Villanueva had stepped up as acting prosecutor with the hope of being elected in the caucus later that year. He was elected from among five candidates in a caucus on Aug. 29, 2019. He is now seeking a full term in office and is opposed in the Republican primary by Lance Hamner, a former Johnson County prosecutor and judge of Superior Court 3.

Employees who came forward confirmed they were asked at the meeting to consider campaigning for Villanueva. He offered to show them a list of precinct committee members who would vote in the caucus, so they could contact any that they knew on his behalf.

“To the staff, if there are people you know, who are precinct people or who are people who you know who know precinct people well, and would feel comfortable reaching out, please do that because we all have an interest in making sure that happens,” Villanueva says on the recording. “I’ll have a copy of the precinct list of all the names, if you’d like. I’m not telling you you have to do that, but if you want, I’ll have it by my office. Go look through it, if you know people, start talking to them.”

Two former legal assistants, Kyndra Biehle and Lindsey Weeks, as well as Jim Dunn, an attorney who worked at the office on a contract basis at the time, authenticated the tape and said that they were interviewed by Indiana State Police (ISP) regarding the tape.

Biehle and Weeks were both at the meeting, they said.

Dunn was out of the office because it was not a day he was scheduled to work. Though Dunn was not there, he was interviewed about the tape and served as an attorney for another person who was interviewed by ISP, he said.

All three left the office several months after the meeting, at different points in the summer of 2019.

Weeks declined to comment further.

John Perrine, a public information officer with ISP, confirmed there is an investigation into a Johnson County official, but could not confirm who the investigation is into or what charges are being investigated.

No charge against any Johnson County official has been filed as of press time. Perrine said he did not have a timeline for the conclusion of the investigation.

Under IC 3-14-1-17, elected officials and government employees are barred from engaging in any type of political campaigning on the job, whether for themselves or a candidate or cause they believe in. Engaging in campaign activity while on the job is a misdemeanor.

If a public servant in a supervisor capacity, such as Villanueva, was determined to have assigned campaign duties, or any duty outside of allowed job duties to a person under their supervision, the charge would be ghost employment. Under IC 35-44.1-1-3, that is a level 6 felony.

‘Make him look good’

Biehle and Dunn said they came forward about the investigation and the tape because they want voters to be able to make an informed decision on Election Day, they said.

“We walked around on eggshells to impress the public rather than working on the issues in those four walls,” Biehle said. “It was about how we can make him look good so he was voted in by the precinct committee people.”

Both said the audio recording is reflective of their experience in the office.

“I think the public needs to know about this. He has done his best to hide what happened,” Dunn said.

The recording had been circulating among county employees since shortly after it was made. They don’t know for certain how the state police were made aware of the audio recording and they did not provide it to the police, they said.

On the recording Villanueva repeatedly says everyone in the office is in jeopardy and might lose their job if he doesn’t win the caucus.

“We are in the fight for our lives and I don’t want to scare people because it’s not my intent,” Villanueva says on the recording. “But there are people who would love to come in here and systematically dismantle this office and every single person in it. We all have family that we care about who love us and our job here supports us and takes care of that. And I don’t want anything to jeopardize that.”

In the recording, Villanueva goes on to paint a picture of the reforms other candidates might make if they were elected and says he would keep the office the same and look out for employees in the office going forward.

“Right now, you guys I think, are not punching in on the clock every time during the day,” Villanueva says on the recording. “You think [candidate] is going to do that? F—- no, she’s not! You know, we’ll be a bunch of warehouse workers, you know, punched in and out. I don’t want that. Everyone in this building has worked too hard as a professional and shouldn’t have to do that.”

He goes over several behaviors that employees should make sure to correct — at least until he’s elected. Those include coming to work on time, dressing appropriately for a professional office environment and staying off social media during working hours.

Multiple times on the recording Villanueva underscores that these measures of professionalism are only temporary and everything can go back to the relaxed atmosphere they experienced under Cooper after the election.

‘A gross mischaracterization’

In a statement to the Daily Journal Villanueva said he is aware of the investigation and acknowledged the recording.

“I am aware that there has been an allegation that I engaged in campaigning during the workday back in 2019,” Villanueva said. “This anonymous complaint is allegedly based on a recording of an office wide meeting by an employee at the time of the meeting. The meeting took place when news was about to break that my predecessor was intending to plead guilty to his pending criminal charges.”

Villanueva said the recording does not show evidence of workplace campaigning.

“This individual’s claims are a gross mischaracterization of what was nothing more than my effort to provide guidance and comfort to the employees of the Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office during a crisis of epic proportions,” Villanueva said. “Through misinterpretation and taking these recorded remarks out of context, the anonymous accuser is trying to create a negative situation where one didn’t exist. However, because these claims have been made against a (now) elected official, there will most likely be some form of investigation. I am confident it will ultimately conclude in my favor.”

To him, the release of the audio to ISP years after it was taped appears to be politically motivated.

“This would seem to potentially be a motivation of the anonymous accuser — to throw out accusations at the last minute, knowing there is no time for the issue to be resolved in its normal course. It is ‘dirty politics’ at its most extreme and should be treated as such,” Villanueva said. “I am proud of the accomplishments and improvements we have achieved since taking office and stand by them.”

Dunn and Biehle were told the tape was given to police sometime in December 2021, they said. That was two months before Hamner filed to run for the office.

With regard to the employee expectations that were gone over on the recording, Villanueva said he did not relax expectations after taking office. Instead, he wrote, and the Johnson County Board of Commissioners approved, a supplementary employee policy manual. Included in the five-page policy are expectations including wearing professional office attire, adhering to approved schedules, giving notice of absences, social media posting and confidentiality. The supplementary policy is in addition to the overarching policy manual that all county employees who work for judicial offices must follow.

“First, I wanted to formalize the already existing changes which had previously been otherwise informally instituted and did not want to wait any further for the county manual to be completed,” Villanueva said. “Second, I wanted to make it explicitly clear what my expectations would be for all personnel of the [prosecutor’s office].”