Todd Rokita Threatens Political Opponents

For the last few months, Secretary of State (and current Congressional candidate) Todd Rokita has been on a campaign against the Indiana State Teachers Association. He’s repeatedly insinuated, while offering no evidence, that the ISTA has commingled political funds with their operating accounts.

But earlier this month, he started using his position as Secretary of State to threaten his political opponents not to accept money from IPACE, the ISTA’s political arm.

The Indianapolis Star’s Bill Ruthart wrote a good summary of the underlying dispute last month:

Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita has accused the Indiana State Teachers Association of putting politics over its members by making political contributions to campaigns while he says it owes school districts across the state $23 million.

The state’s largest union, however, argues the money comes straight from its members and has nothing to do with the money ISTA owes to school districts.

Rokita sued the teachers’ union in December to recoup what he says is the $23 million ISTA owes Indiana school districts from its now-defunct health insurance program. In the suit, now in federal court, Rokita also seeks to freeze ISTA’s assets and wants an independent audit of the union’s accounts to determine exactly how much it owes to 21 districts that earned the health credits.

While under fiscal duress, ISTA discontinued its health insurance program last year, but it still owes school districts that stockpiled credits for paying more into the union’s trust than they spent in insurance claims.

As the ISTA has pointed out, political contributions from its members are voluntary and separate from their dues and other funds. The ISTA’s President, Nate Schnellenberger, made his case in a letter to several papers:

No ISTA dues dollars are ever used – or have ever been used – for direct contributions to political candidates or political campaigns. As secretary of state, Rokita should know that. He should also know that those voluntary political contributions must be used only for their intended purpose – to support pro-public education candidates.

Instead of political posturing in the media just weeks before the next election, Rokita would serve his current office and the state better by getting his facts straight before attacking the state’s largest association of professional educators and public school employees, and in the process those individuals’ rights to contribute to campaigns of their choice.

But a lack of evidence hasn’t stopped Rokita from using his state office to pressure his political opponents to refuse or return contributions from IPACE.

If you take political donations from the teacher’s union, expect the state to come after you.

That’s the message Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita sent this month in a letter to all candidates for statewide political offices.

Rokita sued the Indiana State Teachers Association for defrauding local school districts of $23 million in a health insurance plan that went bust last year.

In his letter, dated Oct. 1, Rokita warned candidates that if he prevails in court, his securities division staff will pursue any money the candidates received from the ISTA’s political action committee.

“The Securities Division will aggressively trace and attempt to recover all funds associated with ISTA in its transfers and expenditures of resources for whatever purposes,” states the letter, which went to more than 200 candidates or their campaign organizations. Rokita asks the candidates to either return the money to ISTA now or set it aside in a separate account until the lawsuit concludes.

Now, I’m willing to admit that it’s a little tone-deaf for IPACE to be spending heavily on political campaigns while ISTA doesn’t have its financial house in order. But I’m not aware of any legal requirement, especially in the post-Citizens United environment, to be modest while spending money on political campaigns. It’s no secret that IPACE gives primarily to Democrats. But despite his continual protests, which consistently get his name in the news, Rokita has offered no evidence that ISTA has commingled its operating funds with its political funds.

And, let’s keep in mind, this wouldn’t be the first time Todd Rokita has used his official position and Hoosier taxpayers’ money to promote his political ambitions. Not only has Rokita used official Secretary of State communications to direct people to his campaign website (and presumably, his fundraising pitches), he’s also been unanimously and publicly rebuked by the State Senate over plans to personally appear in taxpayer-funded ads to build his name recognition for his political career.

On a final note, I can’t help but note the contrasts and parallels to the current scandal over the US Chamber of Commerce and its foreign fundraising activities. While the Think Progress blog has documented that the Chamber is using the same entities to raise funds overseas and domestically, Republicans and their backers in the Chamber have cried that they should be trusted to keep those funds separate – the burden of proof should be on Think Progress to prove that the funds are commingled.