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ROKITA WATCH

Anti-Common Core activist failed to register as lobbyist for Rokita’s office

By Leslie Bonilla Muniz

Indiana Capital Chronicle

August 9, 2022

A Hoosiers Against Common Core co-founder turned policy consultant and state contractor mistakenly registered as a lobbyist for the city of Indianapolis rather than the state of Indiana, Attorney General Todd Rokita’s office has confirmed.

Erin Tuttle formed Tuttle Consulting, LLC, on August 16, 2021, according to Indiana Secretary of State records. Just one week later, on August 23, Tuttle and Chief Administrative Officer Larry Hopkins signed a two-year, maximum $200,000 contract for research, analysis and communications help for Rokita’s office.

The $8,333-a-month contract went into effect August 30 of that year. Among Tuttle’s listed-out duties: “Contractor shall interact and communicate with legislators.”

That item set Tuttle up for a potential violation of Indiana’s lobbyist requirements when she didn’t register with the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission. She was not listed in the commission’s annual rosters for employer and compensated lobbyists, which were both released in April 2022.

There’s a two-part test under Indiana law:

  1. Someone must register as a lobbyist when lobbying — or communicating by any means with a state political candidate, state legislator or most legislative branch employees with the intent of “influencing any legislative action.”
  2. Someone must also earn at least $500 for the work — or spend that amount — during a registration year.

‘An abundance of caution’

In a statement to the Capital Chronicle, Hopkins said Rokita’s office requested that Tuttle register as a lobbyist, but that she did so with the wrong entity — Indianapolis’ Department of Business and Neighborhood Services.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we asked [Tuttle] to complete the necessary registrations that are required,” Hopkins said in a statement Friday. “But this week, it was determined that she had inadvertently registered with the City of Indianapolis lobby commission. That oversight is being corrected and all appropriate filings relating to her and this office are being completed with the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission.”

By Monday, Tuttle’s name was listed in the commission’s public dashboard, albeit without any filings. And it came only after the Capital Chronicle inquired about the issue.

Tuttle herself declined to comment, saying she was not authorized to speak to media.

If Tuttle’s work included lobbying, she was compensated for it. Rokita’s office paid Tuttle $75,400 across 11 invoices from the beginning of the contract through June 30, 2022, according to the Indiana Transparency Portal. So far this fiscal year, the office has paid Tuttle $25,000 in three invoices. The money came out of the office’s general fund.

She was listed in the office’s staff list, but without a photo or biography — which was instead marked as “coming soon.”

Nuances abound

Indiana Lobby Registration Commission Executive Director and General Counsel Edward Ferguson said he wasn’t able to “conclusively determine” whether Tuttle met the two-part test. He indicated the question required more comprehensive review because at least six terms in the test have their own definitions in Indiana law.

“In determining whether or not one has met the test(s) and must register, reference must be made to the definitions of ‘lobbying,’ ‘compensation,’ ‘expenditure,’ ‘legislative person,’ ‘legislative action,’ and ‘influencing legislative action,’” he wrote.

A job description, for example, doesn’t always translate to actual duties.

Office spokeswoman Kelly Stevenson said, in a statement, that Tuttle “provides valuable insight and guidance on a variety of legislative issues, including but not limited to education, immigration, and pro-life policies.”

Ferguson wrote that while Indiana code exempts public employees from having to register, contractors aren’t public employees and aren’t exempt on that measure.

Hopkins said Rokita’s office brought Tuttle on as a contractor instead of as a full-time employee to afford her “the most flexibility possible to perform her assigned duties.”

Past activism

Tuttle, an Indianapolis Catholic school mother, was key in the conservative Hoosier movement against Common Core, framing the national educational standards as a case of federal overreach, according to the Indianapolis Star. She and friend Heather Crossin co-founded Hoosiers Against Common Core in 2010, according to her LinkedIn, and blew the standards into a major political issue in Indiana and further afield.

Indiana, an early Common Core adopter, was in 2014 the first state to withdraw from the standards. Then-Gov. Mike Pence signed legislation ending the state’s participation.

Tuttle went on to work as a policy analyst for the American Principles Project, a conservative, family-focused political group. Tuttle was there until 2018, according to the LinkedIn. In a photo on the organization’s website, Pence, Tuttle, Crossin and a former senior fellow smile together.

“Like previous administrations, the Office of the Attorney General utilizes outside contractors to assist in a variety of capacities, including legal work and legislative and policy assistance,” said office spokeswoman Kelly Stevenson in a statement. “We are fortunate to have her on our team.”

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: info@indianacapitalchronicle.com.

Rokita’s TikTok legal battle part of array of contingency fee contracts

By

Indiana Capital Chronicle

August 1, 2022

When Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita’s office jumped onto a multi-state, bipartisan investigation of social media giant TikTok, it wasn’t initially clear his office would outsource the work to a Washington, D.C.-based boutique legal firm for free — almost.

“We’re going to find out whether or not the Chinese, and by definition, if you’re a Chinese company, then the [Chinese Communist Party] is a part of it, is intentionally grooming our children,” Rokita said in a March Fox Business appearance. “… If they’re grooming our kids to get hooked on porn, drugs, alcohol — because the burner phones that we set up certainly indicate that they’re trying to do that.”

But on May 19, Rokita’s office finalized an agreement with Cooper & Kirk to evaluate and pursue a potential cause of action. Under that contingency fee contract, the law firm won’t get paid a cent unless it secures a recovery, and even then it’ll get only a certain percentage of the funds won.

Rokita’s office has five more of the contingency fee contracts in effect now, according to the website, four of which precede his time in office. Among them are cases against opioid manufacturers and marketers, pharmacy benefit managers, and antitrust cases against Google and the Michigan-based automobile parts industry. The Indiana Department of Revenue also has one.

The contingency fee contracts are a way for governments to bulk up their legal teams and bring on people with hyper-specialized experience to take on particular cases, especially against corporations or industries with deep pockets. But they also have reputations as handshake or sweetheart deals.

Indiana Code requires that the contracts be “cost-effective and in the public interest.”

Agencies must justify themselves in writing before entering into contingency fee contracts with outside counsel, answering questions on whether an agency has the legal and financial resources to take the case itself, whether it can spare the time and labor, how complex a case will be, the legal expertise required and the geographic area in which the agency needs the services.

The contracts are also subject to the state’s usual ethics guidelines governing state employees and their financial interests or relationships.

Indiana’s Office of the Inspector General reviews the justifications and OK’s them in reports. Agencies and outside firms can execute their contracts and jump into the work after.

Rokita’s office, for example, is finalizing plans for a contingency fee contract with Louisiana-based Meade Young to evaluate and pursue legal action against British pharmaceutical company GSK plc. The Inspector General’s Office notes Rokita’s claim that GSK delayed generic entry for Flonase, and that Indiana then overpaid for the branded allergy relief product from 2004 to 2006.

Indiana law sets the maximum percentages agencies can give counsel in contingency fee contracts: from 25% of a $2 million–$10 million recovery, down in increments to 5% of a $25 million or more recovery.

It also caps a firm’s maximum payday to $50 million.

But, that’s only if the firm wins money for Indiana.

“It’s really time consuming to bring these cases in, and it’s risky for the lawyers because they don’t collect anything, typically, unless they win,” said Jennifer A. Drobac, a professor at Indiana University’s McKinney School of Law. “… Charging on an hourly basis, they’re guaranteed to get paid because they get a retainer in advance, and they bill off of the retainer.”

Drobac said in private practice, contingency fees are usually at least 30%, and could stretch to 50% for particularly “high-risk” cases.

Some of the legal firms that currently hold contingency fee contracts with Rokita’s office only work with governments, and only on contingency fee contracts. Others offer more diverse services.

The firms the Capital Chronicle reached either declined to speak on the record, referred requests for comment to Rokita’s office or didn’t respond.

Three of the current firms have earned something off three cases:

  • Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll: $536,200 received out of $2.5 million for a $12.6 million recovery.
  • Foote, Mielke, Chavez & O’Neil and Rynbrandt & Associates: $35,162 million for a $126,250 recovery. (In this case, the firms earned 33.3% of any settlement up to $2 million.)

Correction: This story has been corrected to remove a contract belonging to the Indiana Department of Revenue.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: info@indianacapitalchronicle.com.

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Former IU law school dean calls for Rokita disciplinary investigation

By

Indiana Capital Chronicle

 July 19, 2022

Indiana’s attorney general maintains he did nothing wrong after a former Indiana University provost and law school dean called for a disciplinary investigation into his televised statements about the doctor who oversaw a medication abortion for a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio.

Former IU Maurer School of Law Dean Lauren Robel alleged that Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita made “false or baseless” statements on Fox News about Indianapolis obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Caitlin Bernard, according to a three-page letter sent Friday to the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission.

The letter was first-reported Monday by the Indianapolis Business Journal and Indiana Lawyer.

Rokita said during an interview last week that he was investigating the doctor, accusing her of not filing the proper paperwork after performing the medical procedure.

Filings received through a public records request confirmed the appropriate forms had been filed, however.

Robel’s claims

“If he can throw the entire weight of his office without consequence to attack Dr. Bernard, he can do so to target any private citizen with whom he disagrees,” Robel wrote, according to the IBJ.

“General Rokita has suggested no evidence that prompted his investigation into Dr. Bernard other than his political disagreement with her provision of legal abortion services to the child, as evidenced by his repeated references to her on national television as an ‘abortion activist acting as a doctor,’” Robel continued in her letter. “He has produced no evidence to substantiate his claim that Dr. Bernard had a ‘history of not reporting.’”

Rokita’s office said in a statement to the Indiana Capital Chronicle on Monday that Robel’s complaint was “without basis.”

The Republican attorney general’s office added that Rokita is continuing to investigate whether Bernard was “in compliance with Indiana and federal privacy laws.”

“Any attorney or client can file anything they want, even without basis, which is the case here,” Rokita’s office said. “Our office is continuing its investigation into whether Dr. Caitlin Bernard was in compliance with Indiana and federal privacy laws, among other reporting and confidentiality requirements and practices. No enforcement actions have been filed.”

IU Health, Bernard’s employer, conducted an investigation and found she did was compliant with patient privacy laws.

Indiana’s rules for lawyers

Indiana’s professional conduct for attorneys states that lawyers holding public office assume legal responsibilities “going beyond those of other citizens.” A lawyer’s abuse of public office “can suggest an inability to fulfill the professional role of lawyers.”

The rules instruct lawyers not to “make a false statement of material fact or law,” and instead “be truthful when dealing with others on a client’s behalf.”

Attorneys are additionally required to avoid “misrepresentations,” which can occur if a lawyer “incorporates or affirms a statement of another person that the lawyer knows is false.”

Misrepresentations can also occur when making “partially true but misleading statements or omissions that are the equivalent of affirmative false statements,” according to the attorney guidelines.

Lawyers who “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” are in violation of the professional conduct rules and subject to discipline.

The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission said it cannot confirm or deny if a complaint has been filed against Rokita — who is currently in good standing — unless it decides to file formal disciplinary charges against him.

Not the first time

The commission previously investigated Rokita’s predecessor, former Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, following allegations that Hill groped four women during a party at an Indianapolis bar.

Although the commission recommended that Hill’s law license be suspended for two years, the Indiana Supreme Court suspended Hill’s law license for just 30 days. Hill continues to maintain no wrongdoing.

Bernard filed a terminated pregnancy report for the minor on July 2 after telling the IndyStar about the procedure previously. According to the filing, she performed the medication abortion on June 30.

The child came to Indiana from Ohio because her pregnancy was just beyond Ohio’s 6-week abortion ban. Bernard also filed a secondary document indicating the reason for the abortion was abuse.

An attorney representing the Indianapolis doctor sent a cease-and-desist letter to Rokita on Friday, advising him to stop making false and misleading statements.

The Indiana General Assembly is set to return July 25 for a special session on abortion and tax refunds.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: info@indianacapitalchronicle.com.

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AG Rokita receives ‘cease and desist’ from doctor in 10-year-old’s abortion

By Whitney Downard and Casey Smith

Indiana Capital Chronicle

July 15, 2022

An attorney representing an Indianapolis doctor has sent a cease-and-desist letter to Attorney General Todd Rokita (above, right) advising him to stop making false and misleading statements about the doctor who oversaw a medication abortion for a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio.

Rokita publicly announced he would investigate Dr. Caitlin Bernard, accusing her of not filing the proper paperwork after performing the medical procedure. Filings received through a public records request confirmed the appropriate forms had been filed.

“We are especially concerned that given the controversial political context of the statements, such inflammatory accusations have the potential to incite harassment or violence from the public which could prevent Dr. Bernard, an Indiana licensed physician, from providing care to her (patients) safely,” the letter to Rokita from attorney Kathleen DeLaney states.

guest essay printed in The New York Times by Bernard’s colleague Tracey A. Wilkinson said local police had been alerted to concerns for Bernard’s personal safety.

Bernard, an OBGYN, filed a terminated pregnancy report for the minor on July 2 after telling the IndyStar about the procedure previously. According to the filing, she performed the abortion on June 30.

The child came to Indiana from Ohio because her pregnancy was just beyond Ohio’s 6-week abortion ban. Bernard also filed a secondary document indicating the reason for the abortion was abuse.

Rokita’s office responded late Friday that “like any correspondence, it will be reviewed if and when it arrives. Regardless, no false or misleading statements have been made.”

Prominent Republicans, including Rokita and Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, accused Bernard of manufacturing the story. On Wednesday, the IndyStar reported that a man had been charged in the assault.

“We have this abortion activist acting as a doctor with a history of failing to report. So we’re gathering information,” Rokita told Fox News on Wednesday. “We’re gathering the evidence as we speak, and we’re going to fight this to the end, including looking at her licensure. If she failed to report it in Indiana, it’s a crime for – to not report, to intentionally not report.”

Indiana Right to Life in 2018 accused eight abortion doctors of not filing the appropriate documents for young girls receiving abortions – including Bernard. Indiana’s online license search shows no discipline records for Bernard.

On Thursday, the Indiana State Director of Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates LaKimba DeSadier, released a statement taking anti-abortion lawmakers to task.

“These lawmakers are using a 10 year old’s tragedy as an excuse to intimidate abortion providers and patients, and scare them out of legal, safe health care,” DeSadier said. “Every person, in every circumstance, deserves access to healthcare when and where they need it. I want all patients to know our Planned Parenthood health centers in Indiana are open and welcoming to patients from every state.”

Senate Minority Leader Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, said Democrat offices had received calls from Hoosiers “in disgust over” Rokita’s actions in the 10-year-old’s abortion.

“Instead of apologizing for his egregious claim that the story of a child seeking abortion in Indiana was false, our AG has chosen to pivot to baselessly attacking a doctor for doing her job and providing potentially life-saving health care to a child in need,” Taylor said. “We fervently wish our AG would focus on actually doing his job and leave healthcare to those who went to medical school.”

Rokita’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday evening.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: info@indianacapitalchronicle.com.
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John Krull commentary: Todd Rokita’s chestnut horse

April 5, 2022

The explanation Indiana Attorney Todd Rokita offered for settling his silly, silly lawsuit with conservative commentator and radio talk show host Abdul-Hakim Shabazz reveals what Rokita thinks about his voters.

He believes they are gullible.

Really.

Really.

Really.

Gullible.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, the attorney general is betting that his backers can’t tell the difference between a chestnut horse and a horse chestnut.

Rokita writes in an opinion piece he sent around to news organizations that he settled the suit Shabazz and the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed against him to save the taxpayers money and him time to fight more important battles. (Disclosure: Nearly 20 years ago, I was the executive director of the Indiana ACLU.)

In his piece, the attorney general suggests that Shabazz and the ACLU came after him for no reason.

In fact, Rokita started the fight. He barred Shabazz from a press conference last year on the grounds that Shabazz wasn’t a journalist. Rokita then asserted that he had the right to determine who was a journalist and who wasn’t.

That’s an odd position for a guy who proclaims himself to be a small-government conservative to take, but, then again, intellectual consistency and honesty never have been among Rokita’s strong suits.

It was a stupid, stupid, stupid fight for Rokita to pick.

In the first place, Shabazz had credentials issued by the state of Indiana certifying that he was a member of the Statehouse press corps. To make his case, Rokita would have had to argue that he isn’t bound by the state’s processes and procedures for issuing credentials.

Second, Abdul works for several established and respected news organizations. Rokita was arguing that he, not the owners and publishers of those outlets, was entitled to decide who was a journalist and who wasn’t. Perhaps that’s why the Society of Professional Journalists and other such organizations also came out against the attorney general’s ham-handed action.

Third, Rokita went to war with someone in his own army. Until now, Shabazz has rarely if ever had a less-than-complimentary word to say about any Republican ever. That Shabazz now is willing to make an exception of Rokita says something about the attorney general, not much of it good.

Fourth and perhaps most important, there’s the epic level of hypocrisy involved here.

If Rokita were serious about banning people who weren’t “serious” journalists from his presence, he would refuse to sit down with, say, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson from Fox News. To save the network from crushing lawsuits, Fox has argued in court that nothing Hannity or Carlson says should be taken as either fact or truth because they are polemicists and entertainers, not journalists.

But if either Carlson or Hannity wanted to talk with Rokita, he not would only open his doors to them but likely inquire as to what surgery was necessary for him to be able to bear their children—the attorney general’s fulminations about transgender athletes notwithstanding.

The reality is that Rokita ran up the white flag here because he was going to lose and lose big.

Worse, some observers—including me—had begun to point out that the taxpayers were likely to have to pay quite a bit for his personal meltdown.

Even though he’s done a fair amount of losing, Rokita apparently doesn’t much enjoy the experience.

When he does lose, he looks for someone else to blame for his misfortune.

When there’s a factual error in reporting about him, he’s quick to demand a correction.

But when he does something foolish and there’s no factual error in the reporting, he fulminates about “fake news” and tries to direct people’s attention elsewhere.

He argues that the problem isn’t that he did something dumb or ill-advised. No, the problem is that others noticed that he did something dumb or ill-advised.

But that’s standard Todd Rokita.

He’s betting that enough Hoosiers won’t be able to tell the difference between a chestnut horse and a horse chestnut to elect him governor.

Or maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t know the difference himself.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.
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Rokita, Shabazz reach settlement on press-access lawsuit

March 29, 2022

Journalist Abdul-Hakim Shabazz has had his admission to press conferences with Attorney General Todd Rokita restored—though he says he doubts he’ll be called on for questions any time soon.

The two reached an agreement before Shabazz v. Rokita could land in court. It stemmed from an October 2021 incident in which Rokita’s staff barred Shabazz, an attorney and publisher of IndyPolitics.org, from entering a press conference given by the AG. They claimed he did not have the proper media credentials, even though Shabazz showed his press badge issued by the Indiana Department of Administration.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana sued on behalf of Shabazz in the United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana, alleging that his First Amendment rights were violated. The lawsuit called for an injunction that would grant Shabazz access to future events in the attorney general’s office, which the settlement granted. The attorney general’s office is not covering his team’s fees, according to Shabazz.

In a column, he called the agreement a win for First Amendment advocates and an independent press.

“This is a major victory for yours truly as well as the media as a whole,” Shabazz wrote, “as the attorney general should have never banned me in the first place, especially in light of being labeled a “gossip columnist.'”

In his own op-ed, Rokita cast the media in general and Shabazz in particular as peddlers of “fake news” and a partisan agenda, saying he chose not to continue in part “to free up my office’s capacity to fight for these other laws and issues that deserve our focus.” As an example, he mentioned the controversial trans athlete bill, HEA 1041, vetoed by Gov. Eric Holcomb March 21 and facing a possible override vote by the legislature in May.

The two agreed on just one point: That an ongoing lawsuit would have been a waste of taxpayer money. — The Statehouse File

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Shabazz v. Rokita lawsuit could hold long-term implications for journalists

March 18, 2022

The maneuvering continues in the federal lawsuit between Attorney General Todd Rokita and journalist Abdul-Hakim Shabazz that a First Amendment expert says could hold significant implications for how the press covers public officials.

The lawsuit—Shabazz v. Rokita—stems from an October incident in which staff in Rokita’s office barred Shabazz, an attorney and publisher of IndyPolitics.Org, from attending a press conference about another unrelated lawsuit that Rokita was filing. Earlier this month, Rokita filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, but the case still stands for now.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana is suing on behalf of Shabazz in the United States District Court, specifically the Southern District of Indiana, alleging that his First Amendment rights were violated. The First Amendment guarantees Americans’ right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, among other assurances.

The lawsuit calls for an injunction that would grant Shabazz access to future events in the attorney general’s office.

Shabazz was denied access to the event for not having media credentials, although Shabazz showed a staff member his press badge issued by the Indiana Department of Administration. He didn’t know it at the time, but one of Rokita’s spokespeople had sent him an email when he was on his way to the conference with the following message: “Hi Abdul, [w]e’re sorry, but you are not credentialed for this event. Please watch via livestream. Best, David A. Keltz.”

In court documents, Shabazz claims he didn’t get the email until after he’d already approached the main conference room of the AG’s office.

Soon after Shabazz filed the lawsuit, The Indianapolis Star emailed Rokita’s office to ask why Shabazz was denied access. The office responded by saying it was because he is a gossip columnist.

“Our press conferences are meant for actual journalists reporting on real issues,” the response read.

Striving to dispel the attorney general’s reasoning, the lawsuit explains that Shabazz writes much more than “gossip columns.” He’s been in the political arena for nearly two decades. In addition to his job at IndyPolitics.Org, he hosts a weekly show on WIBC radio called “Abdul at Large” and writes freelance columns for TheStatehouseFile.com, the Indianapolis Business Journal and other outlets.

The lawsuit alleges that Shabazz was turned away because Rokita perceives him as too liberal and because Rokita doesn’t like him. The two have a history of feuding.

Shabazz and Rokita appear to have been on good terms until a Republican primary debate of Rokita’s failed campaign for U.S. Senate in 2018. According to the lawsuit, Rokita objected when he learned that Shabazz was moderating the discussion, calling him biased and liberal. Shabazz moderated the debate nonetheless, and U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, R-Indiana, won the race. Now, some of that tension might be resurfacing as the lawsuit progresses.

Motion to dismiss

On March 2, Rokita’s office filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming there was no First Amendment violation.

“The First Amendment does not grant Plaintiff a right to hear a government official deliver a message in person, as opposed to through a livestream,” the motion read.

The motion also said there is no First Amendment right to hear from a government official at a press conference and added that a federal court has never mandated that a government official take questions from a particular journalist.

The motion also denied the plaintiff’s claim that relief is needed because it holds there is no “concrete threat of future action,” adding that no illegal action took place.

press release from the attorney general the next day said any journalist could have attended the event’s Facebook livestream and posted his or her questions in the comments section. The release never mentioned Shabazz’s name, but Rokita used it as a way to explain his viewpoint on the case. Rokita’s press secretary, Kelly Stevenson, told TheStatehouseFile.com that he “isn’t available for an interview” about this story.

“The ACLU is trying to make a federal case over a bruised ego,” Rokita said in the release. “It should not waste the court’s time or taxpayers’ resources. We remain focused on doing the important work the good people of Indiana have elected us to do.”

The release also said Rokita is accessible to the media, having participated in over 150 interviews since assuming his position 14 months ago.

“My accessibility to the media, as well as my record of transparency, are well-known to anyone who has followed my career,” Rokita said. “Journalists have never complained—because they have no reason to complain—about not having access to or information from my office. If anything, their complaint has been that my office provides too much information.”

ACLU’s response

Last week, the ACLU responded to Rokita’s motion to dismiss with a motion of its own. Right off the bat, the lawyers referenced John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, Inc. v. Evers, which it said sets the precedent for cases of this nature.

In a previous interview with TheStatehouseFile.com, Kenneth Falk, legal director of the ACLU of Indiana and one of the lawyers representing Shabazz, said the case deserves attention.

“The idea of excluding members of the press because of disagreements with them, either personally or what have you, is concerning,” Falk said. “We depend on a free and independent press for information.”

The judges on the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy, Inc. v. Evers case determined that press conferences are limited-access events because people are not welcome to walk in off the street. Because they happen in closed rooms and require credentials, they have been deemed a non-public forum under the law.

Public forums are places where anyone can show up and say whatever they want, like a curbside rally or a convention held in a public park. The judges decided that access can be limited in non-public forums if the restrictions are a “viewpoint neutral and reasonable.” However, the ACLU holds that the attorney general’s decision meets neither of these provisions.

The ACLU’s motion cited the fact that the room was large enough to hold anyone who wanted to attend the event and further alleged that even if he had known about the livestream option, he wouldn’t have been able to ask questions very well on Facebook.

After sending an email to the attorney general’s office asking how it determined who and who isn’t credentialed to attend press conferences and getting no response, Shabazz filed a request under the Indiana Access to Public Records Act to view the information. The office denied his request and said he can obtain the documents through the discovery process of his lawsuit instead, Shabazz said.

According to the ACLU’s motion, Shabazz is still barred from the attorney general’s press events, which harms his ability to report for Hoosier audiences.

The overall message of the motion is that Rokita’s dismissal should be “denied in its entirety.”

Shabazz’s thoughts

Shabazz told TheStatehouseFile.com the vast majority of people he talks to support his lawsuit.

“A lot of people have an issue with a government official banning the media from their event,” Shabazz said. “I never knew I had so many friends in that building [the Statehouse].”

Shabazz said he is confident in the ACLU’s arguments and thinks the court could reasonably reach a verdict by the end of the year. He said the case will set a precedent for the government’s relationship with the press.

“You have to be a pretty ballsy individual to ban the media from your stuff. Now, there’s nothing that says that you have to have a news conference or that you have to even talk to us, but once you open that door, then you’ve got to take everything that comes along with it,” Shabazz said.

Impact on journalism 

Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, said the verdict in this suit will impact how journalists can cover government officials.

“If the attorney general prevailed, it would embolden and open the door for elected officials to basically try to exclude reporters that ask tough questions or seem to be more intent on holding officials accountable than the other reporters,” Key said.

If Shabazz wins, it will set a precedent that any journalist with media credentials can attend a semi-private conference, he continued.

Key said Rokita’s motion for dismissal will likely not be granted because the law favors the defendant and his or her right to have their case heard.

Rokita and Shabazz are both using the First Amendment, Key explained, but in different ways. He said Rokita is trying to express the fact that individuals have a right to speak as well as a right not to speak. Government officials don’t have to hold press conferences, he said, and they don’t have to take questions from every journalist.

However, Key said offering a livestream option does not necessarily protect the office because Shabazz missed out on the informal interactions that journalists get to see before and after meetings. He also missed out on seeing people’s reaction live, he continued.

“Watching something from a livestream is not the same as being in the room,” Key said. “If you’re watching it on Facebook, then you are only able to see what is on the screen.”

Key said this case is revealing of the modern press culture because it’s becoming more difficult to determine who is and isn’t a journalist. It used to be easy, he said, because journalists worked for a print publication and only well-recognized outlets had a printing press and corresponding resources. But times have changed.

“With the internet, anybody can create a webpage or a Twitter feed. There’s not nearly the same barrier to get into the business of being part of the media. So, the question is, what is a journalist and how do you define that?” — Isaac Gleist is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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John Krull commentary: Two big Todd Rokita bad habits

February 10, 2022

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita has at least two annoying habits.

One is picking senseless fights.

The other is wasting taxpayer money.

Our money.

Both these character flaws are on display in Rokita’s dispute with conservative commentator, radio talk show host and gadfly Abdul-Hakim Shabazz. Their quarrel now has grown into a lawsuit.

Let’s be clear about something. This is a stupid, stupid, stupid fight—and the stupidity is all on Rokita’s side.

The squabble began last October when Abdul—in media circles, he goes almost exclusively by his first name—tried to attend a Rokita press conference. Rokita’s staff barred him from entering.

The attorney general’s stated reason for doing so was both absurd and bizarre. Rokita said he locked Abdul out because Abdul was not “credentialed media.” The attorney general also argued that he needed to protect his staff because Abdul had said, half in jest, that he traded in “rumors, gossip and blatant innuendo.”

There are at least two problems with Rokita’s position.

The first is that Abdul is credentialed media. He’s had a state-issued media credential for years. Just about every journalist covering Indiana state government and politics has one.

Rokita’s argument then is that his judgment—or, rather, his inflated but tender ego—should overrule the state’s credentialing system, the needs of Abdul’s readers and listeners and any elected official’s duty to be answerable to the public. (More on the attorney general’s sensitive feelings in a moment.)

The second problem is that it is a rare journalistic enterprise that doesn’t peddle some rumor or gossip.

For years, two of the most heavily read parts of most newspapers were “Dear Abby” and the comics page, neither of which is fact-based journalism. And when TV newscasts do deep dives into the nature of Ben Affleck’s and Jennifer Lopez’s relationship or whether Prince Harry and Prince William still are speaking regularly, they’re not exactly doing hard-hitting reporting.

One suspects, though, that Rokita’s stated rationale for barring Abdul isn’t his real reason for doing so.

If it were, the attorney general would be banning other news outlets that stretch the definitions of fact-gathering.

Instead, he’s focusing on Abdul because Abdul—who, until this dispute, rarely found reason to question or criticize a Republican—didn’t lavish unqualified praise on Rokita during Rokita’s ill-fated campaign to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

The attorney general has a craving for subservience. Google Todd Rokita and staff memo if you doubt me on that.

So, what we have here is a case of a high-ranking state official with skin thinner and more fragile than the dust on a butterfly’s wings having a meltdown.

At our expense.

Before we go further, I need to make a disclosure, both because it’s the right thing to do and because my experience bears on what follows.

Years ago, I was executive director of what is now the ACLU of Indiana, the organization representing Abdul in this suit.

I worked with the ACLU’s legal director, Ken Falk, who is now Abdul’s lawyer. Falk is one of the best constitutional lawyers in the United States and exceedingly scrupulous. He doesn’t take a case unless he is sure that he is on firm ground and has more than a reasonable certainty that the government has violated the Constitution.

When the state loses a case on constitutional grounds, it is obligated to pay the legal fees of the organization or person who filed the suit. If the litigation goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the bill can run to six figures.

In this case, that means that if Rokita loses—as I strongly suspect he will—we taxpayers will pick up the tab for his foolish, foolish fight.

We will have to sacrifice funds that otherwise could have gone into roads, schools or healthcare—or even just back into our pockets—simply because our attorney general has the emotional resilience of a preschooler who missed nap time.

Todd Rokita has made it clear he plans to run for governor two years from now.

When he does, he doubtless will argue that he’s going to be a ferocious watchdog when it comes to guarding taxpayer dollars.

Our money.

Don’t believe him.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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