Ex-Pence aide seeks Indiana elections office that fired him

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A former Mike Pence aide seeking to oust Indiana’s Republican secretary of state is embracing Donald Trump's lie that the 2020 election was stolen while also fending off criticism about twice leaving jobs in that office after being written up for poor job performance.

Diego Morales’ work history has emerged as an issue in his campaign against Secretary of State Holli Sullivan. It’s largely happening outside public view as they seek support among roughly 1,800 delegates who will pick the nominee for Indiana's chief elections officer at the June 18 state Republican convention.

Sullivan’s campaign sent text messages to delegates in recent weeks with links to documents critical of Morales’ job performance in 2009 and 2011. The messages close: “Our elections are too important to hand over to someone who is not ready for the job and has a troubled employment history in the exact office he is seeking to hold.”

The secretary of state oversees statewide policies for elections, which are run by county officials.

Morales, 43, dismisses the disciplinary actions as “office politics” and has worked to connect with delegates through frequent appearances at local Republican events.

Sullivan, 49, previously worked in auto plant management and was a state representative from Evansville for seven years before being appointed secretary of state by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb in March 2021 when her predecessor retired.

Sullivan touts her work toward improving cybersecurity for county election offices and adding small printers to thousands of electronic touch-screen voting machines across the state to create a paper trail of each ballot cast.

Morales, meanwhile, has called the 2020 election a “scam” while pointing to unfounded claims Trump and his allies have made about other states. The former president hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race, but Morales is trying to attract Trump supporters.

He's pushing voter restrictions that include cutting the state’s 28-day early voting period in half, requiring new voters to prove their U.S. citizenship when registering, and creating an “election task force” that would investigate “shenanigans."

As for the disciplinary actions he faced as a junior staff member in the secretary of state's office, he says he's facing a “smear campaign.”

“That was disagreement in leadership, disagreements in opinions, probably office politics, office rivalry,” Morales, who immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala as a teenager with his parents and sisters, said in an interview. “Obviously, the government bureaucracy at its best.”

The disciplinary actions were first reported by The Associated Press during Morales' unsuccessful 2018 run for Congress.

Records obtained under Indiana's public records act showed he was fired in 2009 after eight months in Republican Todd Rokita's office due to “incomplete” work, “inefficient execution” and a “lack of focus. He refused to agree to a work improvement plan and submitted his resignation when he was fired, according to a termination letter.

Two years later, Morales left a different position in the office after refusing to sign a work improvement plan under then-Secretary of State Charlie White, a Republican who was himself removed from office in 2012 following a voter fraud conviction. Morales worked just over a month when he was disciplined for “poor execution" and failing to complete his work, records show.

Morales returned to state government as an aide on the governor’s staff when Pence took office in 2013 and remained until Pence left to become Trump’s vice president in 2017. Some top Pence governor’s office staffers have defended Morales’ work and support his candidacy.

Rokita, now state attorney general, wrote a message distributed by the Morales campaign saying, “As far as I’m concerned, Diego left my office on good terms, and I consider him a longtime friend.”

Sullivan, a former vice chair of the state Republican Party, said “qualifications and background” are important for the office and that the public documents do not show someone leaving on good terms.

“I think delegates deserve transparency and because it was a public office and he was a state employee, they have those public documents to review,” Sullivan said.

Other candidates seeking the Republican nomination are Knox County Clerk David Shelton and Paul Hager, a former Libertarian Party candidate from Bloomington. Sullivan and Morales each raised about $500,000 for their campaigns through the end of March, far ahead of the others.

Destiny Scott Wells, an attorney and Army Reserve intelligence officer, is the only Democrat seeking the nomination at the party’s June 18 convention. Libertarian candidate Jeff Maurer will also be on the November ballot.

Complicating Sullivan’s candidacy are her links to Holcomb, who despite his landslide reelection win in 2020 has faced conservative criticism over actions ranging from COVID-19 restrictions he imposed to his veto of a bill banning transgender females from girls school sports. Many conservative activists won convention delegate seats in the May primary, even though hard-right challengers to current Republican legislators largely failed.

The attention on Morales’ job history could sway delegates who aren’t already strong supporters of any candidate, said Steve Shine, who’s been the Republican chairman in Allen County, which includes Fort Wayne, for 29 years.

“That also has the possibility of backfiring and working against those who thought it would help because there are some people who are totally turned off by negativism in any race,” said Shine, who hasn’t endorsed any candidate.