INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Senate candidate Todd Rokita likely violated ethics laws as Indiana's secretary of state by repeatedly accessing a Republican donor database from his government office, prompting party officials to lock him out of the system until he angrily complained, three former GOP officials told The Associated Press.
Rokita, currently a congressman, is in a bitter primary fight for the right to challenge Joe Donnelly, who is considered one of the Senate's most vulnerable Democrats. The alleged ethics flap over Rokita's use of the Indiana Republican Party's Salesforce database during work hours occurred in 2009, as he was wrapping up a second term as the state's chief elections official and angling for higher office.
Indiana law prohibits state employees from engaging in political activity while on duty or acting in an official capacity. It also prohibits work on anything outside official duties while on the clock, or ordering others to do so, and from using state resources for political purposes.
The former officials, who have direct knowledge of the situation, spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk about it publicly. They did not report Rokita's activity to authorities at the time.
Rokita's campaign spokesman Nathan Brand said Thursday that Rokita used the database to keep his personal rolodex, which Brand said was allowed under state ethics guidance the office received. However, Rokita's campaign could not produce documents outlining the guidance, and the office of current Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson said it could not locate any such records.
"This is a baseless and unsubstantiated hit job. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing provided beside the word of anonymous sources with ties to political opponents," Brand said.
State party officials were alarmed when they discovered that a computer in Rokita's Statehouse office frequently logged in to the database containing detailed campaign information on activists and donors. They froze his access to the system but restored it after Rokita complained.
His government use of the database violated the party's user agreement, which is intended to prevent officeholders from violating state ethics law, one of the officials said.
The secretary of state's office later asked for a list of GOP county chairmen and their contact info, according to the officials and emails obtained by the AP. But after Rokita's office was denied a copy, an IP address tied to his government office again accessed the database, according to an email exchange between a state party official and a county party chairman.
Soon thereafter, county party chairmen began receiving mailers from the secretary of state's office promoting Rokita's "Rethinking Redistricting" initiative, the emails state.
Rokita's redistricting plan, which he championed while running for Congress in 2010, would have made it a felony for lawmakers to take into account political considerations during the once-in-a-decade redrawing of legislative and congressional districts. As secretary of state, his office had no authority to enact the plan, which would have required approval from the Legislature and governor. He did, however, receive considerable recognition for the initiative, which boosted his public profile.
Indiana law allows for minor "de minimis" crossover between public and political business. But David Orentlicher, a University of Nevada Las Vegas law school professor who specializes in government ethics issues, said Rokita's actions were "clearly a 'no-no.'"
"Using your government staff (for political business) during their work day, while they are using government resources? This is well across the line and not a hard call," said Orentlicher, who was formerly a Democratic state representative in Indiana and also taught at Indiana University law school.
It's not the first time Rokita has drawn scrutiny for mixing official business with politics. The AP previously reported that congressional staffers often felt obligated to do political work to help their boss' campaigns. And a February analysis of state and congressional spending records revealed Rokita has spent more than $3 million in public money on ad campaigns that often coincide with his bids for office.
Democratic elections attorney Bill Groth said he believes that Rokita or his employees were "engaging in unlawful political activity, the unlawful use of state property, and ghost employment."
"Indiana law strictly requires elected state officials to wall off their public duties from political activities," Groth said.
Though prosecutions are rare, penalties for breaking state ethics laws range from a monetary fine, firing or impeachment, on up to a felony offense. In any event, charges can no longer be brought because Indiana's statute of limitations requires they be filed within two years for a misdemeanor, and five years for a felony.
Former Indiana schools Superintendent Tony Bennett's use of the Republican database also attracted scrutiny. He was forced to resign as Florida's schools chief in 2013 after a series of AP investigative stories revealed, among other things, that his staffers had similarly accessed the GOP database during working hours and downloaded lists of prominent Republican donors.
The AP's investigation revealed Bennett and his staff had been doing political work on state time during his losing campaign against former Democratic Indiana schools Superintendent Glenda Ritz.