Prosecution of Ind. elections chief could be tough

AP News
Posted: Mar 04, 2011 6:25 PM
Prosecution of Ind. elections chief could be tough

Indiana Secretary of State Charlie White's excuse that a busy schedule and new marriage caused him to give the wrong address at a polling place could be a feasible defense to voter fraud and other criminal allegations he now faces, a legal expert said Friday.

"It may not be a defense to the claim that as secretary of state he should be held to a very high standard, but in terms of a criminal conviction, I think that kind of mistake sounds plausible," said Craig Bradley, an Indiana University law professor.

Prosecutors contend that White improperly voted in last May's Republican primary after moving out of his ex-wife's home in the northern Indianapolis suburb of Fishers and the town council district he represented. The indictment charges he continued to collect a salary from the town council after he was no longer eligible to serve on it.

Bradley said prosecutors could argue that White had the political knowledge to know what he was doing was wrong.

"He would be in a position where he should know and follow the rules and perhaps make it more difficult for him to make an honest mistake kind of claim," Bradley said.

White has been involved in Republican politics since he was a teenager and his election last year as Indiana secretary of state put him in an office that has often been a stepping stone for higher political ambitions.

He was indicted Thursday on seven felony counts, including charges of voter fraud, perjury, theft and financial fraud.

White's initial court appearance is set for March 11 in Hamilton County Magistrate Court. White has rebuffed calls from Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels that he step aside while fighting the charges.

White, a 41-year-old attorney who was the Hamilton County Republican chairman through last year, has previously acknowledged the voting error, chalking it up to his busy schedule and new marriage.

An attorney representing White in a lawsuit brought by the state Democratic Party challenging his election says that White committed a voter registration oversight that thousands of people are guilty of each election.

"He just had a chaotic personal situation at the time and this was an oversight," said Jim Bopp, who is a Republican National Committee member from Terre Haute.

The indictment came a little more than two months after White took office and four months after winning the election with 57 percent of the vote over Democrat Vop Osili.

Former state Republican chairman Rex Early recalled that White was a teenager already volunteering for political campaigns when they first met.

"He's worked so hard to be involved in the political process. I remember vividly that he was so ecstatic at the convention to get the nomination," Early said. "He's been in politics for so long, it's been his love, his avocation."

A felony conviction would force White from office. Indiana law doesn't allow for voter recalls or other actions for his removal short of impeachment and conviction by the General Assembly for misconduct while in office.

The governor would typically appoint a replacement for a statewide office vacancy, but the state Democratic Party maintains in a pending lawsuit that White was ineligible to run for the office because of improper voter registration and that Osili should be the winner since he had the most votes of an eligible candidate.

The secretary of state's office has long been stepping stone in political careers.

White's predecessor, Republican Todd Rokita, was elected to Congress last year, while Democrat Evan Bayh followed his 1986 election as secretary of state by winning the governor's office two years later. Other recent secretaries of state have been thwarted _ Democrat Joe Hogsett lost a 1992 U.S. Senate race and Republican Sue Ann Gilroy unsuccessfully ran for Indianapolis mayor in 1999.

The secretary of state's office, through its bipartisan election division, oversees voter registration and election matters across the state. Those functions, however, are primarily run by county election boards and clerks' offices.

Boonville attorney Anthony Long, a Democrat who is vice chairman of the Indiana Election Commission, said he was confident that county officials and the state election division's staff would ensure proper conduct of this year's upcoming municipal primary and general elections.

Long, however, said White's indictment tainted the election process and that he should consider stepping aside until the criminal case has been resolved.

"It looks bad and its embarrassing if you sit here trying to enforce the rules," Long said. "People invariably will say if the secretary of state doesn't have to do it, then why should I?"