Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Look at Some Recent Actions from Rep. Todd Rokita and Other Members of Indiana’s GOP Delegation to Congress

Former Indiana Secretary of State and current member of Congress Todd Rokita (R-Indiana) doesn't seem too concerned with letting the truth — in the form of his own prior testimony — get in the way of a good scare tactic. First, watch this video (from a Congressional hearing just last week):


Next, read this portion of the opinion of United States District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker in the case of Indiana Democratic Party v. Rokita, 458 F.Supp.2d 775 (S.D. Ind. 2006) (and yes, the defendant in that case is the same Rokita in the video above):

The parties have submitted evidence that paints contrasting pictures concerning whether in-person voter fraud is or should be a concern in Indiana. The arguments concerning voter fraud tend to unfold as follows: (A) Plaintiffs note that there is no evidence of any instance of in-person voter fraud in Indiana; (B) Defendants counter that, even though there is no evidence of voter fraud as such, there is significant inflation in the Indiana voter registration lists; and in any event, based on reports documenting cases of in-person voter from other states, (C) Defendants maintain that voter fraud is or should be a concern in Indiana.

Defendants concede that "the State of Indiana is not aware of any incidents or person attempting [sic] vote, or voting, at a voting place with fraudulent or otherwise false identification." … Plaintiffs further note that no voter in Indiana history has ever been formally charged with any sort of crime related to impersonating someone else for purposes of voting. … Plaintiffs further contend that no evidence of in-person voting fraud was presented to the Indiana General Assembly during the legislative process leading up to the enactment of SEA 483. … Plaintiffs do note, however, there is evidence of absentee voter fraud in Indiana and that pervasive fraud regarding absentee balloting led the Indiana Supreme Court recently to vacate the results of the mayoral election in East Chicago.

(Emphasis added.) Now isn’t that interesting? Todd Rokita, the named defendant in the Indiana voter ID suit and the State of Indiana conceded that “the State of Indiana is not aware of any incidents or person attempting [to] vote, or voting, at a voting place with fraudulent or otherwise false identification.” Note that the concession is not that there have been instances, just not ones worth prosecuting as Rep. Rokita claims in the video. Nope. The concession was that Indiana “is not aware of … attempt[s]” at in person voter fraud. Period. None.

So, was Todd Rokita lying to the Federal Court or was he lying in his testimony to Congress?

If you look at the video again, you’ll see “Hon.” in front his Rep. Rokita’s name on the nameplate. Query whether his actions merit that title (and did I forget to mention that Rokita, while still Secretary of State, refused to directly prosecute his fraternity brother and fellow Republican Charlie White for voter fraud, but of the sort not impacted by Indiana’s voter ID statute?). Oops.

Or then we have this from Roll Call:

This spring, four House Republicans used money from their Congressional office accounts to send five staff members to a training seminar run by a conservative Christian group in Indiana that is leading the charge in the state for an amendment to ban gay marriage.

The expense, totaling $2,500 for the group, is a perfectly legal use of taxpayer money, but it highlights the broad array of things Members of Congress can pay for out of their office accounts. The payments also underscore the tight web of relationships Members can build with favored causes without violating rules against using taxpayer money to fund political activity.

In April, four House Members from Indiana paid the Indiana Family Institute to enroll staffers in the group’s annual training course called the Hoosier Congressional Policy Leadership Series.

The Indiana Family Institute is the state affiliate of the Family Research Council, focusing its efforts on supporting traditional heterosexual marriage while opposing gay marriage and abortion. Last year, the group’s political action committee, Indiana Family Action, helped fund an ad attacking Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) for voting for the health care overhaul, which the ad called “the biggest expansion of abortion in decades.”

Roll Call has previously documented that Members spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on training for their staff, with broad leeway on the training they pay for. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a bicycle and transit advocate, spent $1,400 in October to send several staff to a pro-transit conference in Portland called Rail-Volution, where he was a keynote speaker. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) paid $400 to a social worker named John Powers for crisis-management training during his biennial office retreat.

But the April payments of $500 from Indiana GOP Reps. Larry Bucshon, Dan Burton and Todd Young and $1,000 from Rep. Todd Rokita to the Indiana Family Institute stand out because it is rare for Congressional offices to make direct payments to political organizations.

House rules prohibit the use of official funds for political purposes, but the House Administration Committee’s “member Handbook” allows expenditures for “ordinary and necessary expenses for Members or employees to attend conferences, seminars, briefings, professional training, and informational programs related to the official and representational duties to the district from which elected.”

Josh Gillespie, Burton’s communications director and an alumni of the Indiana Family Institute training program, points out that the training is run through IFI’s nonprofit arm — not the PAC — so “any money coming from our office is not going to any political activity.”

The IFI website describes the Hoosier Congressional Policy Leadership Series as a monthly class intended to “advance conservative policy and faith-based servant leadership principles” among Indiana “community leaders.” The group generally meets once a month from April through November, hears presentations from local policy and business leaders, tours a local hospital and makes a trip to Washington, D.C.

Several current and former Indiana Republican Members of Congress are listed as “Founding Congressional Sponsors,” including Burton and Rep. Mike Pence and ex-Reps. John Hostettler, Mike Sodrel and Steve Buyer. The group’s website once listed former Rep. Mark Souder as a founding sponsor, but he has been dropped from the site since leaving Congress last year after the married Souder acknowledged having an affair with a married aide.

IFI President Curt Smith told Roll Call that Souder was the driving force behind the training sessions a half-dozen years ago. Smith and Souder had previously worked together for Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) years before Smith joined the IFI, and Souder believed that while there were other leadership programs in the Hoosier state, “there is kind of a conservative leadership thing missing.” The institute’s training series is designed to “create a network across the state of like-minded conservative grass-roots folks” who will focus on “community-based instead of government-based” solutions to problems.

The group now has about 100 alumni, including a dozen or so former and current Congressional staff, and part of the idea is to “try to keep the class connected over the years so there would be a directory and some cross-pollination,” Smith said. He noted that if Pence wins the Indiana gubernatorial race next year, the IFI will have a list of leadership trainees who could be good candidates to fill jobs in a Pence administration.

Things that make you go “Hmmm”?

Perhaps this is the kind of thing done all the time. I don’t really know. But it does seem like an issue that should be addressed if a member of Congress can use “official funds” to send staffers to receive “training” on very specific, highly contentious, political issues (especially, if that money may later be used to run attack ads against other candidates). It’s bad enough when lobbyists give money to politicians, but just thinking about politicians giving tax dollars to lobbying groups makes my head spin. And note that we’re not talking about funds that the politician has raised through political contributions; we’re talking about tax dollars budgeting by Congress to pay the office expenses of elected officials. Think about it. Your tax dollars (which fund Congressional office budgets) are being used to “train” staffers on certain issue and those tax dollars can then be used to pay for attack ads. Something about that concept just doesn’t sound right to me.

And one more quick note. My Representative, Dan Burton (R-Indiana) offered a sort of diatribe against the Department of Education. Among other things, Rep. Burton argued that the Department of Education is “not doing anything to really help our economy or our country”. Because, you known, things like Pell Grants to help millions of kids go to college certainly don’t help the economy or country.

And that ends this week’s episode of what our Hoosier members of Congress have been up to.

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