Panel to rule in June on election chief challenge

The Indiana Recount Commission agreed Wednesday to rule by late June on whether indicted secretary of state Charlie White was eligible for office when he was elected six months ago.

Commission Chairman Thomas E. Wheeler II set a June 30 deadline for the three-member panel to rule on Democrats' contention that White, a Republican, was not legally registered to vote when he declared his candidacy to become the state's top elections official.

The commission, which will hold a daylong hearing June 21 on the Democrats' challenge, had initially dismissed the party's challenge in December. But a Marion County judge last week ordered the panel to settle the dispute.

Democrats want to depose White to gather information for their case, but White's attorneys have argued that White could incriminate himself in the criminal case he faces by defending himself in the civil case before the panel.

Wheeler, a Republican, gave attorneys for White and state Democrats until May 13 to try to settle their differences about evidence in the election challenge.

"I truly hope that you will do that because it will make it go a lot faster and I don't think the public is interested in seeing a lot of squabbling over this," he said.

Wheeler said he wants to resolve the challenge "as expeditiously as possible."

Democrats filed their challenge after the November election but before a Hamilton County grand jury indicted White in March on seven counts that include voter fraud and perjury for using his ex-wife's address on a voter registration form.

White has blamed the error on his busy schedule and new marriage and calls it an honest mistake. If convicted of a felony, he would have to resign.

Democrats contend that under state law Democrat Vop Osili, who lost to White by about 345,000 votes in the Nov. 2 election, should take office if White is declared to have been ineligible when he ran for the statewide office.

Wheeler was appointed the panel's chairman last week by Indiana's Republican Party chairman after White recused himself from hearing his own case on the panel.

The commission had dismissed Democrats' challenge to White's eligibility in December. But Marion Circuit Court Judge Louis Rosenberg last week rejected White's bid to stall the Democratic challenge of his eligibility until the criminal case against him is resolved.

Rosenberg said "the public interest is in resolving this matter" and there's no guarantee White's criminal trial on voter fraud and other charges will be held Aug. 8 as scheduled.

Wheeler said Rosenberg has ordered the commission to decide the matter no later than July 6. He urged attorneys for White and the Democrats Wednesday to steer clear of partisan attacks.

"I would admonish both parties — this is not a partisan process here and we won't tolerate partisan attacks by either party," Wheeler said.

The commission voted unanimously Wednesday to direct the secretary of state's office to turn over to Indiana's attorney general's office within 24 hours a report on White that was prepared late last year by the staff of his predecessor, Todd Rokita.

Wheeler said he and the panel's two other members — Democrat Bernard Pylitt and Republican Gordon Durnil — will take turns reading the report and decide what parts might need to be withheld.

Karen Celestino-Horseman, an attorney for Indiana Democrats, said after Wednesday's meeting that Democrats had wanted a shorter timeframe for resolving the case.

"There's no reason that it should be dragging on the way it has been," she said.

James Bopp, who's representing White in the civil challenge, said he will file an appeal with the Indiana Court of Appeals asking it to postpone the election challenge until after White's criminal case is resolved. He said doing so would prevent White from giving testimony to the commission that could later be used against White at trial.

"That's a dilemma we believe he should not be constitutionally subjected to," Bopp said.

The Indiana secretary of state's office, through its bipartisan election division, oversees voter registration and election matters across the state. Those functions, however, are primarily handled by county election boards and clerks' offices.

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