An ethics panel cleared House Speaker Pro Tem Eric Turner of wrongdoing Wednesday for fighting a measure that would have cost him millions of dollars, but it urged lawmakers to strengthen the disclosure rules for public officials.
Turner lobbied behind closed doors against a proposed five-year construction ban that would have stalled development of multiple projects he is invested in through Mainstreet Property Group. Mainstreet Property documents obtained by The Associated Press show Turner had more than $4 million on the line through his ownership stake in the company.
In a letter to Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, the House Ethics Committee said Turner's actions exposed a weakness in the system.
"While the committee does not find that a technical violation has occurred, we are concerned that Representative Turner's actions have not achieved the highest spirit of transparency. Remaining questions about his conduct, while he is in compliance with our rules, give us concern that our rules do not require enough disclosure," the committee wrote.
Turner did not attend Wednesday's meeting or the first ethics meeting on the issue last week. His lawyer, Toby McClamroch, who sat through both meetings, said the panel's decision "exonerates" Turner and that the lawmaker would likely participate in any change in the ethics rules.
"If the Legislature would like to look at the code of ethics and recommend changes to the legislative body, I mean Rep Turner will help in that process. I think we're aware from this of some of the changes they may want to look at and he's more than happy to help," McClamroch said.
The ethics investigation is the first internal review of a House member in nearly two decades. Bosma called for the investigation last month following reports that Turner lobbied against the construction ban in private meetings of the House Republican caucus during the final two days of the 2014 legislative session.
Indiana's ethics laws bar lawmakers from taking formal actions to benefit themselves, such as casting specific votes, but also encourage lawmakers to offer their "expertise" in debates.
Turner thanked the ethics panel in a statement for "clearing" him and said he was clearly offering his perspective on the nursing home industry, not pressuring lawmakers.
"I offered my expertise on the nursing home moratorium in caucus because I have been involved in the industry as a passive investor in senior care real estate for many years," he said in the statement.
The panel's top Democrat, Rep. Clyde Kersey, of Terre Haute, said Turner has exposed holes in an ethics code that has not been changed in roughly 20 years.
"I think this whole thing brought out the fact that we need to make some changes, make things more transparent and call for full disclosure," he said.
For instance Turner listed on his latest economic disclosure form that he is invested in Mainstreet Capital Partners but did not note that company's connection to Mainstreet Property Group. A Mainstreet Property Group document obtained by the AP shows that Turner owns half of Mainstreet Capital Partners, which owns 76 percent of Mainstreet Property Group.
The Indianapolis Star reported that Turner stopped listing the names of nursing home companies he was invested in through another company, T3 Investments, in 2006. Turner's wrote in testimony submitted to the ethics panel that he did not believe he needed to disclose those connections.
House Ethics Chairman Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, said the committee would meet in the coming months and look to have recommendations ready before lawmakers return for their 2015 session in January.
"I expect a full review of all the rules, the code of ethics, as well as the statute," he said.