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Sunday September 24th, 2017 1:39PM

Former aides to GOP lawmaker describe toxic work environment

By The Associated Press
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Staffers in tears. Pay cuts for small mistakes. Aides who walked out of the office — and never came back.

Working for four-term Republican Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana is an exacting job with long hours, made more difficult by a boss known for micromanaging and yelling at his staff, according to 10 former aides who spoke to The Associated Press.

All but one of the former staffers spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern of retribution from the congressman, who is in a competitive GOP primary for the chance to challenge first-term Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in next year's midterm elections. They include five former congressional staffers, three who worked for Rokita when he was Indiana's secretary of state and two who worked on his political campaigns.

In response to the criticism, Rokita said in a statement to The Associated Press: "I have a lot of great employees, and I demand excellence and hard work of them, and myself ... Hoosiers who break their backs putting in 12 and 14 hour days to provide for their families should expect the elected officials and public servants they are paying to work just as hard."

Meticulous and driven, Rokita was the youngest secretary of state in the country when he was first elected in 2002. He served two terms before winning a seat in Congress in 2010, representing parts of western Indiana.

But even in Congress, where ambition and ego can go hand-in-hand, Rokita's behavior is outside the norm, according to the former aides, most of whom have worked for other elected officials.

"Todd's a hard boss to work for. He's got some staff turnover issues," said Tony Will, who was a constituent service representative for Rokita for nearly three years. "But he is a very hard worker."

During the 2010 campaign, a worker was booted from a staff meeting and instructed to clean Rokita's vehicle, which included scrubbing the carpets, according to two people with direct knowledge of the incident.

The reason? A volunteer driver had body odor the night before, they say. Rokita's campaign said the congressman did not recall the incident.

Some aides witnessed fellow workers reduced to tears after he yelled at them. Others said they were expected to work late nights and weekends and regularly worried about angering their boss if they did not quickly respond to an email or phone call during off hours.

Three former congressional staffers said that if Rokita was working, the general expectation was that his staff would as well. Many also felt obligated to do volunteer political work, the three staffers said.

One moment Rokita could charm at a GOP fundraiser. The next he would belittle his aides or question their competence over the route they took to the next event, or their choice of parking spot, three former staffers said. Some say he turned angry over small details, like the kind of letterhead used on office or campaign documents.

Rokita's abrasive nature is not limited to instances described by former staffers. He has rubbed many Indiana Republicans the wrong way, too, leading the GOP-controlled Legislature to cut him out of his district when they redrew congressional maps after the last census. While Rokita was still secretary of state in 2010, the Indiana Senate took the unusual step of calling up an amendment he wanted, only to have the entire chamber, including the amendment's author, vote it down.

His temper has also flared when meeting with students, according to those in attendance.

A Jasper County teacher asked Rokita to leave his high school civics class in November 2016 after a talk that was supposed to be about the Constitution got off on the wrong foot, according to two students.

Rokita had asked the class if they were taught about "American Exceptionalism." But when a number of students seemed puzzled by the concept, he had a testy exchange with their teacher, Paul Norwine, whom he criticized for not including it in the curriculum, the students said.

Tensions eased and the talk proceeded, but the class was dumbfounded, the students said.

"Mr. Rokita got very angry and said, 'You have an American congressman in your class, what are you doing?'" said Marcus Kidwell, 19, a Donald Trump supporter who was a senior at the time. "He seems like a pretty hot-headed guy. That disappointed me because he's a Republican and I was pretty excited to meet him."

Norwine did not respond to a request for comment. Rokita's campaign did not dispute the students' account.

A review of records maintained by the Congress-tracking website Legistorm shows the rate of turnover in Rokita's office is roughly double that of his fellow Indiana Republicans in the congressional delegation. The analysis excludes temporary workers, interns or employees who are shared by multiple members of Congress.

At least two staffers were fired after they said they intended to quit, according to three people with direct knowledge of the firings. Rokita also docked the pay of at least two congressional aides for mistakes, like a minor error in a news release, according to three former aides with knowledge of the actions. Another two staffers simply walked out on the job, according to four former aides.

"It's unfortunate that anonymous, disgruntled ex-staffers are making exaggerated claims that only tell half the story," said Rokita spokesman Tim Edson, who described his boss as honest and blunt.

Rokita was widely mocked for being high-maintenance after Politico reported last month on an eight-page memo, which is given to those who chauffeur Rokita around his district. The document, which was independently obtained by the AP, offers a detailed list of the do's and don'ts of driving the congressman.

Staffers are instructed to arrive at Rokita's house and empty the vehicle's trash before backing it out of the garage. After turning the vehicle around and backing up Rokita's driveway, they must call or email the congressman to let him know they are ready while also taking care not to let exhaust fumes enter the garage. When driving Rokita, the memo instructs staffers not to interrupt him with "unnecessary conversation."

Will, the former constituent services worker who often drove Rokita, said that despite the challenges of the job, he learned a lot and developed a good rapport with his boss.

There were times, however, when he wished "Todd would just take a nap."

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