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What are the impacts of former Wabash Township Trustee’s criminal case?

Karen Celestino-Horseman (Left) and Jennifer Teising (Right) leave court following the trail in December of 2021. The Indiana Supreme Court has just vacated the case against Teising (FILE PHOTO: WBAA News/Ben Thorp)
Karen Celestino-Horseman (Left) and Jennifer Teising (Right) leave court following the trail in December of 2021. The Indiana Supreme Court has just vacated the case against Teising (FILE PHOTO: WBAA News/Ben Thorp)

Earlier this month, the Indiana Supreme Court vacated a case against former Wabash Township Trustee Jennifer Teising, saying that she should not have faced criminal charges.

WFYI’s Ben Thorp sat down with Based in Lafayette reporter Dave Bangert to discuss the case against Teising and what the case says about residency requirements for elected officials.

You can find Bangert’s coverage of Lafayette and Jennifer Teising’s case here.

Ben Thorp: Dave, we reached out to you because you have been covering this from the start. And I want to start with former Wabash township trustee Jennifer Teising. She was indicted in early 2021 on multiple theft charges for taking her trustee salary, while allegedly no longer living within the township. What led up to that initial indictment? 

Dave Bangert: Well, it really goes back to the elections in 2018. We had kind of a mini blue wave here in town and she was part of that. When COVID hit she started apparently traveling around… she had sold her house, started moving in with friends and living in their driveways, in other parts of the state and in Florida and other places. People started wondering where she was.

Thorp: Teising was initially found guilty on all counts in early 2022. With Judge Kristen McVey writing that Teising forfeited her position because of how much time she spent outside the township. Maybe you can talk about one of the outstanding questions of that trial, which at least for me, was what requirements are there under state law for an elected official to live within the area that they represent?

Bangert: In court, they use cell phone records, to track the fact that she was only here, a handful of days over the course of about six months. But that was the question… what does it mean to reside somewhere? When does the vacation mean that you don't live somewhere? And the fact that she was claiming to still do her work, she was still in touch with her assistant at the township. So there was a lot in court about whether she had intent to leave or didn't have intent to leave. And the judge ruled that - was a bench trial, three days - she took about three weeks to rule and said, yes, she was not a resident. So this was theft.

Thorp: When the Indiana Court of Appeals overturned Teising’s guilty verdict late in 2022, they argued that the state had not provided enough evidence that Teising planned to vacate her Wabash township residents and live elsewhere. The more recent Indiana Supreme Court decision went a step further, and said that the state failed to provide proof of any criminal intent at all. Maybe it's worth asking what you think the ripple effects of this case might be? Obviously, you know, we've seen changes to state law, but this question feels like it's still out there about residency and what does it mean to be a resident of a place that you represent?

Bangert: Many people here are really hyper-vigilant about it, you see more challenges of candidates before they run? That's been kind of a follow-on thing. We had another trustee who was in trouble for completely different kinds of theft questions, and not residency. But I think the residency thing will continue here, I think it'll just keep coming up in some fashion. And a part of their argument for Jennifer Teising was that in a modern-day, you don't have to live someplace to do the work in an age of remote offices and remote employees that a trustee could do the work. So it made it a little more complicated. I think everybody wanted the Supreme Court to at least address that. I think also, if you talk about the follow on two years… almost three years later, from the really the heat of all this, a lot of people have wanted to move on. I actually heard quite a bit after I wrote about it. You know, she back in the news again. I think people had some lingering bad taste in their mouth of the whole thing and thought maybe this will go away. But for her it means that she doesn't go to jail.

Thorp: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. 

Bangert: Sure.