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Indiana Democrat fighting fines for walkout

April 8, 2011

Democrats who boycotted the Indiana House for five weeks are receiving smaller stipends because fines incurred during the walkout are being deducted from their checks, but at least one Democrat is fighting the process.

Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, believes the fines are illegal, and is contesting the legality of deducting money from his state check to cover the cost, The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne reported.

"We exercised our right to express our views. We did nothing wrong," GiaQuinta told the newspaper. "We want due process to be followed, and if it is, we will pay."

The walkout by most House Democrats in protest of education and labor bills pushed by majority Republicans left the House with too few members to conduct official business for five weeks. The House leader eventually imposed fines that ended up topping $3,000 for most of the absent Democrats.

Lawmakers have already been paid their full salary for the year. But they also receive a daily stipend of $152 while in session, which is paid in a weekly check. Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma has ordered the weekly per diem checks reduced by 20 percent for Democrats — cutting checks from $912 to $729 — until the fines are paid in full. Bosma said he would also accept personal checks to cover the fines if lawmakers want to pay all at once.

House rules state that members — even without a quorum — can "compel the attendance of absent members, make an order for their fine and censure and adjourn from day to day until a quorum is in attendance." Bosma said he's confident the fines are legal.

"I don't have any concern about that," he said. "If somebody wants to take this matter to court, I think they'll find themselves in a difficult spot."

But Fort Wayne Attorney Mark GiaQuinta, Phil GiaQuinta's brother, sent a letter Monday to State Auditor Tim Berry, whose office issues the checks, and the clerk of the House arguing it is illegal under several Indiana statutes to deduct the fines from the per diem paycheck. Mark GiaQuinta said he is representing only his brother, not other members of the Democratic caucus.

"The practice of deducting fines from employee wages is viewed both historically and uniformly as a pernicious act outlawed in most, if not every, state of the union," he wrote in the letter.

Berry said his office merely receives a pay grid from the House each week that shows how much each member should receive.

Bosma has asked the state Attorney General and an outside attorney for opinions on the letter, but hasn't stopped the process of withholding.

"My response at this point is I see no reason to change course," Bosma said.

The fines have divided the former boycotters in private Democratic caucuses, with some members gladly willing to pay the fines and others objecting, The Journal Gazette reported.

"I'm fine with it," said Rep. Win Moses, D-Fort Wayne. "It's in the House rules, and our absence triggered them."

Moses said he will likely pay the fine with a personal check soon. He didn't criticize his colleagues who are fighting it, saying "everyone has their own life and their own reasons."

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