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Indiana elections chief criticized for CPAC Hungary trip

Republican candidate for Indiana Secretary of State Diego Morales poses for a photo in Indianapolis on Sept. 20, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana’s top elections official traveled last week to Europe two days after final votes were cast in the first election under his supervision to speak at a right-wing political conference in Hungary.

Republican Secretary of State Diego Morales’ office said his trip to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Hungary on Thursday and Friday didn’t disrupt any election-related actions by the office. Democrats, however, accused Morales of skipping out on his official responsibilities following Indiana’s city and town primaries to join “fringe figures” at the event in Budapest.

Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban opened CPAC Hungary with a speech centered around battling what he frequently described as “woke culture,” and delved into hot-button cultural topics such as transgender and LGBTQ+ rights, migration and the content of education for children.

In a photo posted Thursday to Orban’s official Twitter account, Orban is surrounded by more than a dozen U.S. conservative political figures attending the conference. Only unsuccessful 2022 GOP Arizona governor candidate Kari Lake stood between Morales and Orban in the photo.

Lake was among the most vocal 2022 Republican candidates promoting former President Donald Trump’s election lies, which she made the centerpiece of her campaign. Morales, who took office in January, had called Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election a “scam” before dialing back that description ahead of winning election last November.

Morales declined an interview request through office spokeswoman Lindsey Eaton, who called his travel to the conference “personal activities” not paid for by taxpayer funds.

“The role of a public official such as the Secretary of State includes interacting with and learning from diverse communities and constituencies, as well as sharing information about our state,” Eaton said in a statement. “The subject of Secretary Morales’s speech was to share his personal American Dream story, his passion for our state and country, and the importance of strengthening ties with countries around the world.”

Morales frequently highlights his life story of immigrating from Guatemala as a teenager with his parents and sisters to Indiana without knowing English, then going to college and enlisting in the military before becoming a U.S. citizen. He was speaking Friday during a CPAC session titled “Make Kids Not War,” according to the conference website.

Morales’ office didn’t announce the trip ahead of time and he did not include it among his frequent social media posts until after the state Democratic Party criticized him on Monday. His posts described the trip as “this past weekend” even though the conference was held Thursday and Friday.

“Indiana held municipal primary elections less than a week ago, military ballots are still arriving, and several races were incredibly close, yet Indiana’s top election official decided to jet off to a political conference in Eastern Europe for a photo op with Viktor Orban,” state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Schmuhl said. “Working Hoosiers deserve elected officials that represent the best in Indiana, stick around and do their job during critical times.”

Eaton said the secretary of state’s involvement in city and town primary elections across Indiana was less than during statewide general elections.

“Though the municipal primary election was essentially, successfully completed by Wednesday, the Secretary, his experienced office staff, and staff at the Indiana Election Division provided uninterrupted assistance to local election administrators throughout the week,” Eaton said.