Embattled Indiana Secretary of State Charlie White avoided public ouster Tuesday, only to stare down what could be his toughest test yet: possible jail time.
The Indiana Recount Commission cleared the Republican of political wrongdoing and found he had been eligible to run for office last year, despite Democrats' contention that he had committed voter fraud.
But White still faces a criminal trial beginning Aug. 8 on voter fraud charges and perjury. A conviction on any of the seven counts against him would be enough to oust him from office. A loss in court could put White in jail, something the Recount Commission couldn't do.
But both sides in the criminal trial agreed that Tuesday's win wouldn't cut White any slack in Hamilton Superior Court.
"I just think it's a completely different type of a situation," said special prosecutor John Dowd. He noted that White's case now would be heard by a jury of 12 citizens rather than three political appointees.
"It's a different proceeding, and a different burden of proof, which is on us. But it's different evidence, too," he said.
Dennis Zahn, the defense attorney representing White in the criminal case, agreed the commission's vote Tuesday would have little bearing on what happens in court.
"I don't believe the recount commission decision is in any way binding on the Superior Court of Hamilton County," he said. "They're just two different worlds, if you will."
The Recount Commission's panel of two Republicans and one Democrat voted unanimously Tuesday that White had been eligible to run for office in 2010, rebuffing a Democratic challenge to his candidacy based on the allegation that he had illegally registered to vote at his ex-wife's address when he also had a condo with his then-fiancée.
Democrats said they would review the finding and decide whether to file an appeal.
Commission members said they wrestled with the legal question of intent, and concluded that the Democrats couldn't disprove White's claim that he had stayed at his ex-wife's house but intended to move into the condo after he got married — which he did.
But Commission Chairman Thomas Wheeler scolded White for skirting the edge of the law.
"I think you were treading on the line," Wheeler, a Republican, told White at the end of the two-hour hearing.
Testifying before the commission last week, White said his voter registration troubles were a mistake stemming from a complicated personal life in which he was trying to help raise his 10-year-old son, plan his second marriage and campaign for the state's top elections job.
Wheeler and Democratic commissioner Bernard Pylitt said the case showed that Indiana campaign laws hadn't kept pace with modern life and should take into account the sometimes fluid living arrangements of the modern family.
"The problem is these laws are antiquated ... they don't reflect our current society," Wheeler said.
White agreed at an impromptu news conference in his office after the hearing.
"We have a lot of statutes that do not reflect how our society is today," he said. "I think there's a lot of room for legislative change ... because the world as it is today ... is not the world it was two decades ago when it comes to people who are blending their families and putting their children first."
White said he was relieved by the commission's vote but declined to respond to Wheeler's scolding. However, he made it clear that he felt persecuted by Democrats.
"I never thought in a million years that politics would get so personal and dirty," White said.
The state Democratic Party chairman made it clear he disagreed with the commission's decision.
"I believe that from a layman's perspective, not a lawyer's, his ex-wife's house was a hotel and he checked in there a couple of nights a week. So what this commission is saying is that you can register to vote at a temporary location if you're sleeping there a couple of nights a week," Dan Parker said. "So watch out for all these people who are going to register at a Holiday Inn Express."
Parker said it was clear that White had intended to live in the condo but registered to vote at his ex-wife's address so he could keep his seat on the Fishers Town Council. Democratic attorney Karen Celestino-Horseman said he used his dual addresses to his advantage, claiming the condo on loan and other documents but claiming his ex-wife's address when it came time to vote.
The state Democratic Party had wanted the Recount Commission to find that White should be replaced by Democrat Vop Osili, whom White defeated by a large margin last November.