Governor’s Lobbyist Joining Political Strategist

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August 20, 2013 — TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Mike Pence’s legislative director will leave his office and join a political strategies company in the midst of an uproar about her former boss, the firm’s owners said Monday.

Heather Willis Neal served as chief of staff to former state Superintendent Tony Bennett during the time he is accused of changing the state’s A-F grading system to benefit a charter school he had been touting. Neal participated in email exchanges that discussed making the controversial changes.

After Bennett lost his reelection bid last year, Neal moved to the new Pence administration. Now, she’ll serve as president of the public affairs practice at Limestone Strategies, a firm co-founded by Cam Savage, who also worked for Bennett.

“Heather is a tremendous addition to our company,” Savage said in a statement.

“Having worked in the highest levels of Indiana government for more than a decade, her credentials are unrivaled as a leader on just about every key issue from economic development to education to elections,” he said. “She is an even more extraordinary person and we couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome her to lead our new practice.”

The Associated Press first reported last month that Christel House Academy, an Indianapolis charter school, was to receive a C under an A-F grading system Bennett’s office had developed.

“This will be a HUGE problem for us,” Bennett wrote in an email to Neal, according to the AP.

Neal wrote back a few minutes later, “Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved.”

The Department of Education then made several changes to the formula that moved the Christel House grade – and the grades of several other schools – to an A.

Bennett has denied any wrongdoing, although he resigned his post as education chief in Florida after news about the changes broke.

On Monday morning, reporters asked Pence about rumors that Neal would be leaving his office. He called Neal a “very valued member of our staff” but would not comment about her status.

He added that Neal “played a critical role in the legislative successes that we had during the last session of the Indiana General Assembly.”

“She served us with great distinction,” Pence said.

Limestone Strategies is a political and communications consulting company in Indianapolis. Co-founder Kevin Ober said few people “can combine Heather’s deep understanding of public policy and her relationships on both sides of the aisle in the Indiana Statehouse.”

“We believe she’s exactly the right person to lead this area of our company,” he said.

As Pence’s legislative director, Neal served as his key liaison to the General Assembly.

At the Department of Education, Neal directed the office’s policy and legislative initiatives and overall operations for the 250-person office.

She also served as the Indiana Public Access Counselor under former Gov. Mitch Daniels and the executive director of a non-profit organization focused on education.  She started her career as a division director in the Indiana Secretary of State’s office under then Secretary Sue Anne Gilroy. She then was appointed chief of staff for Secretary Todd Rokita after his election in 2002.

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