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Lawmaker Turner worked to nix nursing home ban

March 17, 2014

A powerful House Republican secretly lobbied colleagues in the final hours of the 2014 session last week to kill a measure that would have been disastrous for his family's nursing home business.

Rep. Eric Turner lobbied to kill legislation that would have temporarily halted construction of new nursing homes and elderly care facilities, multiple Republicans with direct knowledge of the discussions told The Associated Press. Turner's son has emerged as a statewide leader in building such facilities, capitalizing on a surge of retiring Baby Boomers.

IBJ reported March 14 that last-munute lobbying unexpectedly killed the legislation.

The Republicans spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the private caucus meetings during which Turner argued his case.

Turner didn't immediately return a message from The Associated Press seeking comment Monday. And House Republican spokeswoman Tory Flynn was unable to reach him.

Turner's private lobbying marked an about-face from his public actions during the session, during which he regularly excused himself from votes on the measure and stayed quiet through public hearings.

Last year, The Associated Press reported that Turner had pushed a measure to benefit a client of his daughter, who is a Statehouse lobbyist. In light of that, House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said last year he'd review how the House handles conflicts of interests.

Bosma was on vacation and not available for comment Monday, Flynn said.

Turner is one of the House's most powerful Republicans, with the formal title of Speaker Pro Tem and the author of most pieces of tax legislation. He was in line to become chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee at the start of last session, but the AP reported last year that concerns from Republican lawmakers about conflicts of interest cost him the coveted spot.

House ethics rules bar lawmakers from voting directly to benefit themselves, but Turner's efforts last year and this year did not appear to be a violation because they would have benefited his children instead.

Mainstreet Property Group LLC, a development company run by Zeke Turner and founded in part by his son Eric Turner, is in the process of developing five projects that the company believes will result in $162 million in economic impact throughout the state. A message left Monday with a Mainstreet Property spokeswoman seeking comment was not immediately returned.

The stakes are high in the nursing home game. Existing operators, some with older facilities, came to state lawmakers this year seeking to extend a construction moratorium enacted in 2009. They argued that flooding the market with new facilities would draw wealthier patients away and cause Medicaid recipients to be stuck in worsening conditions at the older homes.

Eric Turner's children, Zeke Turner and Jessaca Turner Stults, who's a lobbyist for Mainstreet, were on the other side of the debate with developers and trade unions, arguing that building new nursing homes meant creating thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in economic development.

Publicly, Eric Turner stayed out of the fight. In a pair of House committee hearings on the issue, he did not talk openly about the issue and excused himself from voting twice because of the conflict of interest.

Zeke Turner and others launched a last-minute campaign at the end of the session, bringing in top-tier Republican and Democratic lobbyists to sway lawmakers. But it was his father's decision to swoop in last Wednesday as the session raced to a close that became deciding factor in defeating the nursing home measure, said another Republican with direct knowledge of Turner's efforts.

Lawmakers are often asked to recuse themselves from issues that benefit themselves or their direct family, said David Orentlicher, a law professor at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and a former Democratic representative.

But in a part-time Legislature, where lawmakers have outside jobs, it can be hard to avoid every potential conflict, he said.

Orentlicher said that if Turner thought it was necessary to recuse himself from voting on the issue in public, he should be equally transparent about his efforts in private.

"Caucus should figure out the policy to address this type of situation especially because you're doing it where it is behind closed doors, so the need is even greater," he said.

Mainstreet has been the focus of conflict-of-interest questions in the past. Last year, the company was cleared of wrongdoing in a review of a state incentive deal ordered by former Gov. Mitch Daniels.

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