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The Journal Gazette

  • Left to right: Messer, Rokita, Braun

Tuesday, April 17, 2018 1:00 am

Accusations fly at GOP's 3-way debate

So do denials for Senate candidates

BRIAN FRANCISCO | The Journal Gazette

Has U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita violated state government ethics laws? Does U.S. Rep. Luke Messer live in Indiana? Did Mike Braun profit personally from legislation he pushed as a state lawmaker?

Some of the questions at their second debate went straight to the bare-fisted brawl of a campaign Rokita, Messer and Braun have waged in trying to become the Republican nominee for a U.S. Senate seat from Indiana.

At the end of Monday night's debate at WISH-TV in Indianapolis, the candidates were asked whether their “attack ads and biting criticism” of one another had violated the “gentleman's rule” of all-male Wabash College, from which each graduated. That rule calls for every student to be “a gentleman and a responsible citizen” on and off campus.

Rokita said he had not broken the rule and that Wabash “has another motto, too, and that is 'Wabash Always Fights.' And that's what we're doing.”

They were plenty feisty Monday even if all three supported letting schools arm teachers; allowing President Donald Trump to expand military operations in Syria if he chooses; improving security along the U.S.-Mexico border; imposing tariffs against China-made steel and aluminum; and immediately ending special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into whether Trump's campaign had colluded with Russian officials.

Rokita, R-4th, rebutted a report last week by The Associated Press in which three unnamed former state Republican officials accused him of conducting political activities on state government time and property in 2009 when he was Indiana's secretary of state in apparent violation of ethics laws.

He said he kept his emails from 2009 and knows the identities of the sources for the AP story.

“And they are all associated with the Messer campaign,” Rokita said. “This is fake news at its worst. I completely deny it because it's wrong, and I think people see through it.”

Messer, R-6th, said Rokita was “just making it up” by contending Messer's campaign was behind the news report.

Braun dismissed an April 6 story by the Indianapolis Star that questioned whether he had personally benefited when he successfully pushed to cut taxes and regulatory costs on Indiana's timber industry when he was a state representative from Jasper. Braun owns 5,000 acres of timber land in southern Indiana. 

“I feel real good that that was something that was so mild that it passed the ethics test,” Braun said. 

He said General Assembly rules state that legislation has to have substantial, direct and unique effect on a lawmaker's private income to present a conflict of interest, and the timber legislation “was neither one of them.” He said the legislation “had no impact on my holdings.”

But Rokita said Braun “is one of the largest tree farmers in the state” and “was lowering his own” taxes. And Messer said about Braun, “There's some real ethics questions about what he did there.” 

Rokita has charged repeatedly that Messer lives in the Washington, D.C., area and not in Indiana, prompting one of the questions at the debate.

“Absolutely, I live in Indiana,” Messer said. “My address is 119 South Vine in Greensburg, Indiana. It's a home I've owned for 17 years. I'm a lifetime Hoosier.”

He said his children attend school in the Washington area because “my kids need a full-time dad” when Congress is in session.

Rokita, who lives in Brownsburg, said about Messer's Greensburg house: “It's a two- or three-bedroom house. His mom lives there. He's got several kids. They live in Virginia.”

Messer and his wife have three children. They own houses in Greensburg; McLean, Virginia; and Daindridge, Tennessee, according to the financial disclosure report he filed last summer with Congress.

The next GOP Senate candidates debate will be at 7 p.m. Monday at the Ramada Hotel Plaza and Conference Center in Fort Wayne as part of the Allen County Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day Dinner. The first hour of the 90-minute debate will be televised live by WPTA and PBS39.

Braun and Messer are scheduled to debate again in Indianapolis on April 30. Rokita has said he will not take part.

The winner of the May 8 Republican primary election will challenge Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in the Nov. 6 general election.