News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Indiana Legislature

September 30, 2011

Indiana panel dismisses complaint against Democrats

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Election Commission has dismissed — for now — a campaign finance complaint involving House Democrats who staged a five-week walkout earlier this year.

The panel’s Republican chairman, Dan Dumezich, said Thursday that the issue will likely return in January after Democrats file campaign finance reports, according to a report today in the Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne.

House Democrats halted work in the chamber in February by fleeing to Illinois to protest a Republican agenda they called an assault on labor unions and public education.

In March, a constituent of Rep. Kreg Battles, D-Vincennes, sent an email complaining that Battles accepted illegal campaign contributions by allowing the Indiana Democratic Party to pay for his hotel and meals while he and his colleagues were in Urbana, Ill.

Legislators are prohibited from soliciting or receiving campaign contributions during the long budget session of the General Assembly, which is when the walkout occurred.

The Indiana Democratic Party paid about $95,000 in Urbana expenses, according to its campaign finance report.

While the complaint is specifically against Battles, any finding in the case would likely apply to all the House Democrats who joined in the walkout. Democratic officials contend that they financed a caucus — not campaign activity.

But some Republicans during the walkout said the state party’s payment of those expenses should be counted as an in-kind campaign contribution.

“(Battles) came across this money somehow. The question is did he solicit?” Dumezich said. “And unless the Indiana Democratic Party plans to give legislators a 1099 or W2 for the amount of money spent on vacation in Illinois, it had to come from somewhere.”

During Thursday’s discussion, it became clear that Battles has not filed a campaign finance report for the time period in question because he isn’t required to do so until January.

Democratic member Sarah Steele Riordan said given that fact there is no substantial likelihood of a violation.

“I do not understand what we are doing right now,” she said.

Dumezich conceded that point and the group voted unanimously to dismiss the complaint.

But he said in January, if the contribution isn’t listed on Battles’ report, the commission should consider the issue again.

The commission has two Republican members and two Democratic members and often deadlocks on issues with political overtones. It takes three members to penalize a candidate.

Riordan and fellow Democratic member Anthony Long stressed that if the commission began looking into the Indiana Democratic Party, they would have to remove themselves from the proceeding. Riordan is legal counsel for the party, and Long is a member of the Democratic state central committee.

Neither Battles nor Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker attended Thursday’s hearing.

“My understanding is that this was not sanctioned by the commission, only Dumezich,” Parker said via email. “It’s not a formal proceeding, just a fishing expedition.”

Members of the election commission never got to the substance of the complaint Thursday because the two Democratic members questioned whether Dumezich had the authority to unilaterally place the item on the agenda for investigation.

Legal counsel for the Republican and Democratic co-directors of the Indiana Election Division differed on Dumezich’s authority, so the group asked Attorney General Greg Zoeller for an advisory opinion on the applicable law.

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