The state elections panel that is weighing voter fraud allegations against Indiana Secretary of State Charlie White includes a Republican loosely linked to White through political contributions, raising questions about the panel's impartiality as it prepares to rule on whether White should remain in office.
Indiana Recount Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is listed among top-name Republicans as a participant in a White fundraiser in May 2009. A political action committee set up by Wheeler's law firm, Frost Brown Todd, donated $5,000 to White's election campaign in July 2010, according to state campaign finance records. The law firm itself donated another $2,000 that year, the records show.
The firm's PAC also donated $2,000 to Democrat Vop Osili, according to the campaign database.
Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Frost Brown Todd, disputed the state's figures, saying it double-counted contributions from the law firm and that the PAC donated only $2,500 to White and $1,000 to Osili.
Regardless of the amount, Common Cause Indiana policy director Julia Vaughn said the donations raise questions about whether the Republican-led commission, which is under a judge's order to consider Democrats' challenge to White's election, can be neutral.
"It certainly creates a cloud of impropriety," said Vaughn, whose not-for-profit group advocates for election reform.
Democrats accuse White of using his ex-wife's address on his voter registration form to keep his Fishers Town Council seat even though he bought a condo with his fiancée outside the district he represented. They want the recount panel to find that White violated the law when he voted in last year's May primary under his ex-wife's address and install Osili as secretary of state.
White also faces an August trial on charges including voter fraud and perjury. A conviction on any of the seven criminal counts against him would be enough to oust him from office and possibly put him in jail.
Wheeler was listed along with roughly a dozen other top Republicans — including Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, then-Sen. Teresa Lubbers, R-Indianapolis, and Dee Dee Benkie, one of the state's representatives on the Republican National Committee — on a Facebook invitation to a "kickoff" fundraiser for White's campaign on May 13, 2009, at Indiana Republican Party Headquarters in Indianapolis.
Wheeler said he did not attend the White fundraiser and made no direct contributions to White.
"I did not attend that, I was in New York City at the time. Not sure how my name got onto a Facebook invite. I don't do Facebook," Wheeler wrote in an e-mail Monday to The Associated Press.
Murphy said contributions from the firm's PAC are made on behalf of all employees at the firm.
White said Monday he did not remember whether Wheeler attended the sparsely attended fundraiser.
The three-member recount commission has two Republican members and one Democrat. The other Republican, Gordon Durnil, has given $50 each to two separate Republicans, not including White, according to the state's campaign finance database.
The lone Democrat on the panel, Bernard "Buddy" Pylitt, gave $150 to the state Democratic Party in 2004, according to the state database.
Pylitt said Monday he did not believe that donation to the plaintiffs in this case would sway his decision.