The Journal Gazette
Friday, February 19, 2021 1:00 am


Not above the law he's sworn to uphold

New attorney general skirts public accountability

Todd Rokita took over as Indiana's attorney general on Jan. 11, and it's been an intriguing first few weeks on the job for the state's top law enforcement official.

The Republican former congressman and secretary of state has sparred with Twitter and repeated unfounded claims about election fraud. Two days after taking office, he announced he'd declined to join a bipartisan group of 50 attorneys general from states and territories on a letter condemning the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol.

Rokita most recently is raising eyebrows for his second job – a gig at an Indianapolis benefits firm that he says was approved by state ethics officials.

But he's not letting anyone see the informal advisory opinion supporting the claim, and Indiana Inspector General David Cook was not a part of that opinion, which Rokita spokeswoman Lauren Houck said was requested Jan. 12 and received Jan. 15.

Houck on Wednesday told The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly that “disclosing information contained in the advisory opinion would violate the standard non-disclosure agreements signed previously with these entities, therefore the advisory opinion will not be made public.”

Rokita also is a “director or board member of several other entities,” the Indianapolis Star reported Thursday, though specifics about those also have not been made public.

Some details about private-sector business interests could be included in disclosure forms required to be filed by next month, but why wait? The secrecy is concerning, and the attorney general should be open about work outside the Statehouse and potential conflicts of interest.

Rokita is strategic policy adviser and holds an ownership interest in Apex Benefits, a company he has worked for since 2019. His office said his “interests and outside employment are all squarely within the boundaries of the law and do not conflict with his official duties.”

He could seek a formal opinion that would be public from the Indiana State Ethics Committee, but Rokita has not. Informal opinions are signed by either the state ethics director or a staff attorney, not the inspector general, a spokeswoman for that office said.

Indiana law says a public servant has a conflict of interest if she or he knowingly or intentionally “has a pecuniary interest in; or derives a profit from; a contract or purchase connected with an action by the governmental entity served by the public servant.” That's vague, compared to other states' conflict of interest laws, some of which include dollar amounts and tests for whether elected officials' judgment might be compromised by their business dealings.

Illinois has a four-factor test to determine conflict of interest, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks conflict of interest laws.

We don't know whether Rokita's outside work is a conflict of interest, and that is a problem. If there is no conflict, he should be open and provide documents with proof.

Andrew Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said conflict disclosure “is viewed as an acceptable action by elected officials in Indiana.”

“Disclosing a conflict is very different than eliminating the conflict,” he said in an email. “From a purely ethical standpoint, the goal should be to eliminate the conflict, not just to disclose it.”

Rokita can start with transparency.

Sign up for our Opinion newsletter

Sent daily