A special prosecutor decided there was insufficient evidence to charge Johnson County’s prosecutor following an Indiana State Police investigation into allegations of ghost employment.
Former employees of the Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office alerted the Daily Journal to the investigation in late March 2022, prior to the primary election. The investigation was based on an audio tape that was recorded by an employee at about 1:54 p.m. on April 23, 2019.
At the time, 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. Current prosecutor Joe Villanueva had just 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.
Villanueva lost his bid for another term in the May primary and Lance Hamner, who was prosecutor from 1991 to 2008 and served as judge of Johnson County Superior Court 3, was chosen as the Republican nominee. Villanueva’s term will end on Dec. 30.
Several former employees who informed the Daily Journal about the investigation said they felt pressured to campaign for Villanueva. On the recording, 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.”
The special prosecutor assigned to review this case, Ripley County Prosecutor Richard Hertel, determined the evidence that the ISP investigator gathered was not sufficient to charge Villanueva with any crime, specifically not ghost employment.
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.
In a document filed Thursday in Johnson County Circuit Court, Hertel listed factors he considered when making the decision, among those are: the probability of a conviction, characteristics of the accused, possible motives of victims/witnesses, age of the alleged offense, recommendations of ISP, doubt about the accused’s guilt and insufficiency of admissible evidence to support a conviction. The document also says the decision not to charge could be revisited if more evidence is presented.
The Daily Journal reached out to Hertel’s office for additional comment on the findings but did not receive a response by press time.
From the beginning, Villanueva has thought this investigation and the release of the three-year-old tape was politically motivated, he said in April.
“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 in an April statement. “I am proud of the accomplishments and improvements we have achieved since taking office and stand by them.”
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.
Former employees who came forward about the investigation and the tape said they wanted voters to be able to make an informed decision in the primary. They were told the tape was given to ISP sometime in December 2021, they said. That was two months before Villanueva’s primary opponent Hamner filed to run for the office.
In the April statement, Villanueva said the meeting was not about forcing anyone to campaign for him. He called the meeting to bring order when the office was in chaos and to help turn the office in a more positive direction.
“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.”
Villanueva said Thursday he would issue a statement on the results of the investigation in the coming days.