Public money fuels Indiana Senate candidate’s publicity bid

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Throughout his career in elected office, Indiana Senate candidate Todd Rokita has used apocalyptic language to warn of “out-of-control” government spending, which he once described as “choking our economy and stealing freedom.”

Yet whenever election season rolls around, the Republican congressman has been more than willing to shell out public dollars to tout his efforts in office, according to an analysis of public records by The Associated Press.

Over the past 12 years, Rokita has spent roughly $3 million in public money on media campaigns, mailers and other forms of mass communication, usually ramping up the spending before appearing on a ballot, the AP’s review found. That figure reflects spending by Rokita that occurred both when he was Indiana’s secretary of state and during his time in Congress.

Spending taxpayer money on unsolicited mass communications, such as postage-free mail pieces and radio ads, is called “franking” — a practice as old as Congress itself. Still, the propriety of spending such money on what largely amounts to an ad for an office holder has long been questioned, leading to efforts to curtail the practice in recent decades.

Taxpayers have footed the bill for several radio spots Rokita has aired ahead of the May 8 GOP Senate primary.

“Hi, Todd Rokita here,” he intones in one $27,000 ad buy promoting a veterans resource fair that was held Thursday in Kokomo. “As your U.S. representative in Congress, it’s my job to serve as a resource to connect you with your local and federal government.”

His congressional spokeswoman, Hilton Beckham, says Rokita’s use of franking has helped him inform constituents “about issues and services his office provides to help job seekers, veterans, and seniors navigate the maze of federal bureaucracy.”

There’s just one problem. Among the half-dozen stations that were part of that $27,000 ad buy was an Ohio one that doesn’t reach anywhere near his district — a violation of House rules. It does, however, beam into the Fort Wayne area, where he is lesser known. Rokita’s campaign said the ad was booked by accident, after someone confused the Ohio station’s call letters with another one closer to home.

Rokita is locked in a tight three-way competition with fellow Rep. Luke Messer and wealthy businessman Mike Braun for a chance to unseat Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly.

Since joining Congress in 2011, Rokita has spent a minimum of $1.1 million in taxpayer money on mailers, radio ads and other forms of communication, the AP’s review found.

That’s 10 times more than Donnelly spent in the same period as a congressman and then senator. It far surpasses the $304,000 Messer, one of Rokita’s primary opponents, has spent on such expenses since joining Congress in 2013.

In fact, Rokita’s spending on mass communications dwarfs that every other member of Indiana’s federal delegation. Often it has placed him among the top spenders on franked communications, record show.

Members of the U.S. House averaged $50,000 annually on franked from 1997 to 2008, according to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service. Rokita has averaged around $166,000 a year during his time in Congress, even as the use of franking has declined.

But Rokita’s reputation for self-promotion predates his time in federal office. While still secretary of state, his use of nearly $1.9 million in public money on such expenses so angered fellow Republicans in the Legislature that they passed a 2010 law aimed at curtailing his appearances in TV and radio ads.

At the time, they argued the ads were less about keeping the public informed and more about building Rokita’s name identification to further his political ambitions.

It also stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric he has used when attacking other forms of public spending, including the social safety net.

“With every vote I take in Congress, I am working to cut spending, whether it’s millions or trillions,” Rokita said in a 2011 news release. “Every dollar we save today is one less our children and grandchildren will have to repay.”

The amount Rokita spent on taxpayer funded communications that year: $261,000.

In the summer of 2016, Rokita unsuccessfully pursued the GOP nod for governor after then-Gov. Mike Pence joined the Republican presidential ticket. In short succession, he dropped off the ballot for Congress, intensely lobbied the Indiana Republican Party for the gubernatorial nod, and later jumped back on the congressional ballot after those efforts failed.

His spending skyrocketed during that time, jumping from several thousand dollars in the months before, to $241,000 during the final six months of that year, records show. That placed Rokita among the top five spenders in Congress at the time, records show.

That has given his rivals plenty of ammunition in a primary where the Republican candidates are trying to outdo each other for the distinction of being the most conservative.

“Career politician Todd Rokita is just doing what he’s done throughout his entire career in politics: using the taxpayer dollars of Hoosiers to promote himself and promote his political career,” said Josh Kelley, a spokesman for Braun, the businessman in the race. “Todd (Rokita) sees the Senate as simply the next opportunity for a taxpayer funded promotion.”