Stan Heffner's departure as Ohio's top education official became inevitable after a state report suggested he had deliberately concealed a major conflict of interest and used public resources for personal business. Necessary, but not sufficient: A full and fair criminal investigation now is needed to determine whether the former state superintendent of public instruction broke the law.
Mr. Heffner tendered his "retirement resignation" last Saturday; it takes effect Friday. It came two days after state Inspector General Randall Meyer reported that the then-interim superintendent lobbied the General Assembly in May, 2011, for legislation that would have benefited a private vendor, Educational Testing Service -- without disclosing he had accepted a job with the company.
Mr. Meyer also concluded that Mr. Heffner had used tax-subsidized employees and resources of his state office to negotiate his employment agreement with ETS, sell his house in suburban Columbus, and prepare to move to Texas for his new job. Mr. Heffner finally rejected the private-sector job when he was named permanent superintendent in July, 2011.
The inspector general's revelations made Mr. Heffner's position untenable. He surely would have been in no position, for example, to oversee a credible ethics investigation of school districts -- including Toledo -- that have acknowledged deleting test scores of chronic truants from data the state used to calculate their annual report cards.
Mr. Meyer did not formally refer his report to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien, whose jurisdiction includes state offices in Columbus. But Mr. O'Brien says he has received the report and will investigate Mr. Heffner's conduct to determine whether it warrants criminal charges. If he finds he cannot conduct a thorough review for any reason, he should not hesitate to ask Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to name a special prosecutor in the case.
The State Board of Education, which employs the superintendent, and the Ohio Ethics Commission also need to review the inspector general's report to determine whether it requires policy changes that they can execute.
Efforts by state Democratic officials to compare Mr. Heffner with Tom Noe -- a former chairman of the Lucas County Republican Party who is in prison for looting a state investment fund -- are overblown. But just as seemingly understated was Gov. John Kasich's bland response to Mr. Heffner's resignation, which cited "unfortunate ... mistakes of judgment" and said the superintendent always put "Ohio's students above everyone else, including his own interests."
It seemed nearly as disingenuous for Mr. Heffner to claim he is leaving "because I don't want opponents of reform to be able to twist mistakes I've made into roadblocks to Ohio's reform efforts." During his brief tenure, the superintendent worked helpfully to elevate core learning standards, improve early-childhood education, and work toward meaningful evaluations of teachers and principals.
But none of that obscures the seriousness of the allegations against him. Whether Mr. Heffner merely displayed bad judgment, or violated the law in a manner that demands restitution, can be determined only by a credible criminal investigation. It needs to proceed.