INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana’s chief lawyer is ready to face his biggest jury yet – the electorate.
Republican Greg Zoeller, 56, wants a second term as attorney general, but Democrat Kay Fleming, a 52-year-old single mother and practicing attorney, is giving him a fight.
Zoeller worked in the Attorney General’s Office for eight years as a deputy before winning the post in 2008. Prior to that, he worked in the White House alongside Vice President Dan Quayle.
Married for 24 years, Zoeller has three children.
He said when he was considering running again he asked himself whether he still had the commitment and passion to serve. The answer was yes.
If you love government and love practicing law there is no better place, Zoeller said of the job, paying about $88,000 a year.
He is particularly proud of an education and training program he instituted in his office as well as an outreach unit to help prosecutors in other parts of the state with difficult cases. Zoeller also has reduced the number of lawyers in his office slightly, thanks to working directly with agencies to head off litigation before it is filed, he said
The majority of the work the office does is defending criminal appeals. He also acts as the state’s lawyer when the state is sued, including when laws passed by the General Assembly are challenged.
You have to play the hand you are dealt, Zoeller said of a few recent losses, including parts of Indiana’s immigration statute and an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood.
He has been criticized by Republicans by backing away from the immigration law after the U.S. Supreme Court found similar sections of an Arizona law unconstitutional. And a federal judge issued an injunction against the abortion law while it is further litigated.
Zoeller has had some big wins too, including defending the state’s law requiring identification to vote, the legality of the Toll Road lease, several tax court cases and others.
During his term he also sued the federal government over the health care act. He and attorneys general from other states challenged whether states could be mandated to expand Medicaid and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled they couldn’t.
I wanted to make sure they didn’t infringe on state’s authority, Zoeller said, while also promising not to make a habit of suing the federal government. He also received a lot of attention for his role in handling millions in compensation for victims of the state fair tragedy. Initially he was praised for finding an outside specialist to help fairly split the $5 million in injury awards.
Later, though, he tried to tie additional millions the legislature provided to clearing several outside entities of responsibility – something many of the victims disputed.
If re-elected, Zoeller wants to expand his role in protecting children. This includes working with an Internet crime unit, handling more legal work for the Department of Child Services and aiding with school resource officers.
DCS has been assailed in recent months over fatalities that might have been avoided with more department action, a faulty statewide hotline and poor care for children with mental illnesses. Zoeller is limited in his involvement but he did make the decision to take over appellate work from the department after a botched attempt by the agency to censor a newspaper from publishing legally acquired information.
He noted specifically with regard to DCS that he is not a member of the governor’s administration and it might be good to take a legal view that is apart from policy and politics.
Zoeller’s opponent, Fleming, previously worked as a probation officer before going to law school. She also spent six years as counsel for the Indiana Gaming Commission and is now a partner in a small law firm handling municipal law, charity gambling and other issues.
She grew up on a farm in Boonville in a family of all daughters. Jokingly she notes that she had to castrate pigs growing up – a fact that never fails to come up around suitors. Fleming has never run for office and now has a newfound respect for all candidates and those who hold office. It’s very much about endurance.
Fleming is juggling a law practice, a campaign, motherhood and caring for her elderly mother.
She decided to get involved because she thinks there is more the Attorney General’s Office can do.
Specifically, Fleming thinks the office should be more involved with the state’s sex offender registry so that the register is more consistent from county to county.
In recent months there has been confusion on how some offenders who were sentenced before the creation of the registry can remove their names from the list. Some counties are doing this, while others are refusing.
Fleming also would like to place regional offices around the state in existing state office space to help with local cases in which an expert state deputy attorney general might help.
Some examples of this are identity theft, fraud or complicated elder-abuse cases where local prosecutors could use temporary assistance.
She criticized Zoeller for getting involved in the suit against the federal health care act, saying it was about politics and not an end result.
Fleming is also concerned that the state attorney general is authorizing the hiring of outside counsel far too often – sometimes at a cost of millions to the state.
One key example of this was when IBM sued Gov. Mitch Daniels over a botched 10-year contract to modernize the welfare intake system. The Family and Social Services Administration ended up paying more than $8 million to a politically connected law firm and lost the initial trial court ruling.
Zoeller said he looks at individual instances before approving outside counsel and doesn’t feel it is being abused.