Indiana lawmakers struggle with ethics system

Throughout the House Ethics Committee's meeting last week reviewing the actions of House Speaker Pro Tem Eric Turner, Democrats and Republicans consistently noted the troubles they see in balancing the demands of a part-time legislature against the need for clear ethics rules.

Turner, the first lawmaker to be investigated by the group in close to two decades, is under review for his private lobbying against a proposed ban on the construction of new nursing homes. The ban would have cost him millions through his ownership in the nursing home developer Mainstreet Property Group.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that Turner owns 38 percent of the business through a separate company — enough to earn him well more than a million dollars each time a nursing home project is completed. Members of the ethics panel have not pressed Turner on the millions he had at stake, but instead have focused on whether he properly disclosed his financial interests in legislative forms.

The ethics panel reviewed written answers Turner submitted to them through his lawyer last week while Turner attended a meeting of the State Budget Committee. The ethics panel is scheduled to meet again Wednesday to make recommendations to House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis.

"There's a lot of things we don't know anything about, of course — what went on in caucus stays in caucus — as far as everything, he followed the rules," said the ranking Democrat, Rep. Clyde Kersey, D-Terre Haute

After the panel submits its recommendations to Bosma, its members will meet again through the summer to craft a new set of ethics rules for lawmakers. Ethics watchdogs are hoping lawmakers find a way to close some of the loopholes that allowed Turner to lobby in private.

"The best thing that we can get out of this is a beefed-up legislative ethics process that will put the public interest over personal political interest," said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana and a lobbyist for ethics reform.

Indiana is one of 17 states where lawmakers spend roughly half their time filling their public duties and the other half of the time pursuing private careers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The NCSL does not categorize legislative bodies as either part-time or full-time, but instead divides them on a scale based on the percent of time the lawmakers spend on their public duties and the number of staff working for them.

Vaughn said the Turner case is proof that some outside oversight of lawmakers is needed. She recommended an independent ethics commission similar to what New Jersey operates. New Jersey, which operates more like a full-time legislature, according to the NCSL, maintains a joint legislative ethics committee with clear rules and powers set out in the law.

In Maryland, which has a part-time legislature similar in size and time demands to Indiana's, lawmakers enacted their last major series of ethics reforms in 2002, after a lobbyist and state lawmaker were found guilty of defrauding lobbying clients. One answer approved by Maryland's lawmakers was deeper, more thorough financial disclosure rules for lobbyists and their clients.

Indiana's law regarding ethics for lawmakers itself appears somewhat conflicted. On one hand, it says lawmakers should not use their publicly elected office for direct personal gain. On the other, it says lawmakers should offer their specific expertise in debates.

Members of the ethics panel, including Chairman Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, and Kersey have expressed concerns about maintaining their part-time status and maintaining the privacy of their caucus meetings, where many key decisions are made.

"That's part of what we have in a citizen legislature. Each one of us brings to the table a different expertise. So I think it's important that everybody share those things," Steuerwald said. "It will be a matter of trying to find a balance."

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