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Indiana cases could define conflict of interest

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The question of what constitutes a conflict of interest and why it matters for public officials has run throughout a string of high-profile ethics scandals in Indiana recently.

State Rep. Eric Turner's conflicts—as he represented both the people of his central Indiana district and his family's nursing home business—eventually grew too much for House Speaker Brian Bosma, who announced last week that he would remove him from his leadership role in the House.

And Troy Woodruff's work overseeing the Indiana Department of Transportation as it purchased land in southwest Indiana from him and his family spurred state and federal investigators to spend roughly four years deciding whether he violated any laws or ethics rules. In the end, they determined he hadn't.

But that investigation, and others, never addressed the question of whether the official had placed his own interest above the public's—one definition of a conflict of interest.

Speaking in front of the Statehouse last Tuesday, Democratic candidate for auditor Mike Claytor fired off a jab at Indiana's Republicans, saying that children would do a better job of handling the ethics issues.

"I think third-graders understand what a conflict of interest is. And if we could get some third-graders in to educate some of the state officials, it might help a lot," Claytor said. "Maybe that ought to be the next proposal, that we take this to the third-grade level."

Claytor's comments, and other shots from recently emboldened Democrats, carry a partisan edge to them. But even the perception from the public that their officials are doing anything other than the public's work was enough for Bosma to put his foot down.

"There is no more important precept in a free democratic system than the expectation of impartial decision making by elected policy makers," Bosma said in a statement Friday. "In a part-time Legislature, we each carry with us our own personal conflicts and influences and we must continually be on guard to set them aside, or recuse ourselves entirely from influencing that matter. Our greatest concern must be the confidence of the public in their elected officials."

Throughout the debate over Turner's efforts to shield his family business from a proposed nursing home construction ban, Statehouse insiders often pressed the case that conflicts of interest are inherent in any part-time Legislature, because a legislator's outside job will inevitably be the subject of legislation at some point.

The reasoning, among many Turner supporters, was that to crack down on conflicts of interest would force the Legislature to become full-time, with all the congressional stigma that comes attached to full-time politicians.

Many lawmakers do have moderate conflicts, which they openly disclose. Teachers vote on education legislation and workers in the health care industry have voted on innumerable health and insurance measures.

But few, if any, have as direct a financial interest as Turner in stopping legislation.

Through his limited comments on the issue, Turner has said he did nothing wrong.

One of the few officials to acknowledge any mistakes was state Rep. Todd Huston, who said his dual roles working for an education contractor and advising then-schools Superintendent Tony Bennett could be perceived poorly. He said he had set in place his own ethics firewalls to ensure he was not placing the contractor's interest above the public's.

It's been hard to find those ethics firewalls in most other cases.

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  • Accountability
    A part time legislature is no excuse. Those of us who served in the Kernsn administration got ethics clearances and reviews. That stopped. And a lot of problems started.
  • Best Ethics Quote
    “We don't have an ethics commission in northwest Indiana. We have the FBI," Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott Jr. Missing in action on White Collar crime? Indiana Inspector General Thomas? US Attorney General/FBI? Marion County Prosecutor?

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  1. to mention the rest of Molly's experience- she served as Communications Director for the Indianapolis Department of Public Works and also did communications for the state. She's incredibly qualified for this role and has a real love for Indianapolis and Indiana. Best of luck to her!

  2. Shall we not demand the same scrutiny for law schools, med schools, heaven forbid, business schools, etc.? How many law school grads are servers? How many business start ups fail and how many business grads get low paying jobs because there are so few high paying positions available? Why does our legislature continue to demean public schools and give taxpayer dollars to charters and private schools, ($171 million last year), rather than investing in our community schools? We are on a course of disaster regarding our public school attitudes unless we change our thinking in a short time.

  3. I agree with the other reader's comment about the chunky tomato soup. I found myself wanting a breadstick to dip into it. It tasted more like a marinara sauce; I couldn't eat it as a soup. In general, I liked the place... but doubt that I'll frequent it once the novelty wears off.

  4. The Indiana toll road used to have some of the cleanest bathrooms you could find on the road. After the lease they went downhill quickly. While not the grossest you'll see, they hover a bit below average. Am not sure if this is indicative of the entire deal or merely a portion of it. But the goals of anyone taking over the lease will always be at odds. The fewer repairs they make, the more money they earn since they have a virtual monopoly on travel from Cleveland to Chicago. So they only comply to satisfy the rules. It's hard to hand public works over to private enterprise. The incentives are misaligned. In true competition, you'd have multiple roads, each build by different companies motivated to make theirs more attractive. Working to attract customers is very different than working to maximize profit on people who have no choice but to choose your road. Of course, we all know two roads would be even more ridiculous.

  5. The State is in a perfect position. The consortium overpaid for leasing the toll road. Good for the State. The money they paid is being used across the State to upgrade roads and bridges and employ people at at time most of the country is scrambling to fund basic repairs. Good for the State. Indiana taxpayers are no longer subsidizing the toll roads to the tune of millions a year as we had for the last 20 years because the legislature did not have the guts to raise tolls. Good for the State. If the consortium fails, they either find another operator, acceptable to the State, to buy them out or the road gets turned back over to the State and we keep the Billions. Good for the State. Pat Bauer is no longer the Majority or Minority Leader of the House. Good for the State. Anyway you look at this, the State received billions of dollars for an assett the taxpayers were subsidizing, the State does not have to pay to maintain the road for 70 years. I am having trouble seeing the downside.

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