Legislature and State Government and Politics and Government & Economic Development and Government

GOP concerns derailed Turner's chance at powerful post

April 24, 2013

A ranking Indiana House member under scrutiny for using his position to help his children was passed over to head the powerful House Ways and Means committee last year because fellow Republicans were concerned about his and his daughter's lobbying efforts, lawmakers told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

House Speaker Pro Tem Eric Turner, R-Cicero, seemed poised to become the committee's chairman and to write the state's $30 billion budget, which lawmakers will approve in the coming days. His daughter, Jessaca Turner Stults, lobbies on behalf of Amazon.com, Insure-Rite, nursing home operators and other groups.

Republican lawmakers bypassed Turner for the chairmanship last year amid concerns over his potential conflicts of interest. House Speaker Brian Bosma instead handed the seat to Rep. Tim Brown, a consensus pick without any apparent conflicts of interest.

The revelation of the concerns about Turner comes a month after he urged lawmakers to open the door for one of his daughter's clients to win a multimillion dollar state contract and a few weeks after Gov. Mike Pence placed a hold on $345,000 in state incentives to his son's nursing home real estate company. Bosma said last week he would review the House ethics rules after reading about Turner's work on behalf of Insure-Rite.

Turner said Bosma approached him about the chair at the end of last summer, but that the two never talked about any concerns about conflicts of interest. Turner said he supported Brown's pick as chairman and praised his work this session.

Asked if he was concerned about any conflict of interest arising from a Turner chairmanship, Bosma talked broadly about looking at many things when picking his leadership team.

"You weigh a lot of different factors when you're trying to pick any of the chairman," he said Wednesday.

But three lawmakers who spoke to The Associated Press said they raised their concerns with Bosma and his staff last summer. They said they were worried that clients represented by Turner's daughter would either get special treatment in the budget or appear to get a leg up on competition. The lawmakers insisted on anonymity because they weren't authorized to publicly discuss their private conversations.

Turner said he does worry that others may perceive a conflict of interest in issues on which his daughter lobbies. But he said there are numerous issues where he has opposed her, including a key vote against the Healthy Indiana Plan she brokered while working for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.

"I think people recognize that I've worked hard and I think she's worked hard to separate (ourselves). She has her work to do and I have my work to do," he said.

Bosma considered five or six candidates for the chairmanship, which opened after former Chairman Jeff Espich, R-Uniondale, announced his retirement. As the leader of a new supermajority and a storied institution, Bosma was concerned about how any potential conflicts of interest for the new chairman would be viewed publicly, said one lawmaker who was involved in the discussions.

Turner's work as a lobbyist for the U.S. Fireworks Safety Commission, which represents the fireworks industry in other states, and his daughter's lobbying in the Indiana Statehouse have long been a concern, said another lawmaker. But it wasn't until it looked like Turner might write the budget that Republicans pressed Bosma.

A third lawmaker confirmed the accounts of the other two representatives.

Turner has occasionally been rebuffed by his colleagues in the General Assembly on issues involving his family's interests.

Members of the Ways and Means Committee last month rejected a Turner amendment that would have opened the door for Insure-Rite to win a multimillion-dollar state contract. But a similar measure was included in a Senate bill signed by Pence earlier this month.

In 2011, Turner abstained from voting on a measure limiting the number of beds in nursing homes following a newspaper report about how it would benefit his son's company. Turner says he always planned to abstain on the vote and questioned the report.

House ethics rules don't directly bar lawmakers from using their office to help family members. Bosma said he would look at the rules after the session ends following an Associated Press report about the bill.

Turner has denied any wrongdoing and has said he has pushed against his family's interests before. He pointed to legislation he sponsored that would have sped up when Amazon would begin collecting sales tax on online. His daughter, representing Amazon, opposed the measure.

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