Hoosier taxpayers pay rising bills amid AG Rokita’s anti-abortion battles
For By Marilyn Odendahl for the Indiana Citizen
September 11, 2023
On Dec. 15, 2022, attorney Christopher Bartolomucci of Schaerr Jaffe flew into Indianapolis and billed Indiana taxpayers for 12 hours of work, parking at Dulles International Airport, roundtrip airfare, and a meal at Harry & Izzy’s airport location. The cost: $7,275.70.
Two days earlier, Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita’s office had extended its contract with Schaerr Jaffe, a law firm based in Washington, D.C. The amendment to contract no. 40298 expanded the scope of the legal work the firm’s attorneys could assist Rokita with and raised the payment cap to $900,000.
A review by The Indiana Citizen of the law firm’s invoices submitted to the Indiana Comptroller from mid-November 2022 to the end of April 2023, shows costs spiked to $180,504.94. The increase in billing corresponds to Rokita becoming embroiled in a legal dispute with an Indiana gynecologist who attracted national attention after performing an abortion on a 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio.
The type of work the attorneys did has been redacted from copies of invoices provided by the comptroller. However, the dates of the work correspond with Rokita’s legal battle with Indianapolis OB/GYN Caitlin Bernard who performed the abortion on the Ohio girl. Rokita enlisted Schaerr Jaffe to get a trial court to strike from a judge’s order that he violated confidentiality laws in speaking publicly about his office’s investigation into Bernard and also asked the law firm to help prosecute the complaint Rokita’s office filed against Bernard with the Medical Licensing Board of Indiana.
Also, in January, Schaerr Jaffe indicated it was representing Rokita before the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission. The reason Rokita is being investigated has not been released publicly. However, following his public remarks about Bernard last summer, several respected members of the Indiana legal community – including former Indiana University Maurer School of Law dean Lauren Robel, former Rep. Susan Brooks, and retired federal judge John Tinder – accused him of overstepping the law for political purposes.
In a statement last week, Rokita’s office defended its contract with Schaerr Jaffe and the use of taxpayer money to pay for the firm’s services.
“We will continue using Schaerr Jaffe as this office has done throughout multiple administrations – whether it’s related to abortion activist, Caitlin Bernard, separate pro-life issues, or other cases in general,” the office stated in an email. “Of course, public money is involved in any matter which defends the work of a state attorney whose efforts are performed on behalf of the state.”
Longer extensions, higher costs
A fourth extension to the contract was executed on Dec. 13, 2022, a little more than a month after Bernard and her colleague, OB/GYN Amy Caldwell, filed a complaint in Marion County Superior Court against Rokita and Scott Barnhart, chief counsel for the attorney general. Bernard and Caldwell asked the court to block Rokita’s investigation based on what they said were “meritless” consumer complaints and to stop his subpoenas seeking access to their patient’s medical records.
Following the filing of the lawsuit, Rokita lodged a complaint against Bernard with the Medical Licensing Board of Indiana for talking to a reporter for The Indianapolis Star about the 10-year-old Ohio girl. The complaint was litigated before the board in May and Bernard was reprimanded and fined $3,000 for violating patient privacy.
As part of the fourth extension, the scope of the legal work was broadened to include help in handling matters related to two cases: Bernard and Caldwell v. Rokita and Barnhart, and Indiana University Health, Inc. v. Indiana Attorney General.
Also, the hourly rate for Schaerr Jaffe attorneys was set at $550 an hour and $75 for paralegals.
Attorneys, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, reviewed the invoices for The Indiana Citizen.
They said hourly rates appeared reasonable but they conceded fully evaluating the cost is difficult because the descriptions of the work performed have been redacted. They were unable to assess whether the time billed and the number of personnel were reasonable for the task performed.
Although the total dollars seemed a bit high to some of the reviewing attorneys, they said there is no way to determine if Schaerr Jaffe is working efficiently or whether they had multiple attorneys working on tasks or attending meetings and hearings that could have been performed adequately by one lawyer.
Schaerr Jaffe was initially hired by former Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill to help defend against a challenge to the constitutionality of an abortion-related law, HEA 1211, which went into effect on July 1, 2019. In that challenge, Bernard v. Individual Members of the Indiana Medical Licensing Association, filed on April 25, 2019, the plaintiffs attempted to overturn the law, which made the dilation and evacuation abortion procedure illegal in most cases.
The contract originally capped legal expenses at $300,000 when it became effective retroactively on Dec. 11, 2019.
Rokita kept the contract with Schaerr Jaffe when he assumed office in January 2021. He has since amended the contract six times, thereby extending the termination date and the cap amount.
FOOTNOTE: Dwight Adams, a freelance editor and writer based in Indianapolis, edited this article. He is a former content editor, copy editor, and digital producer at The Indianapolis Star and IndyStar.com, and worked as a planner for other newspapers, including the Louisville Courier-Journal.