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House panel backs new ethics rules for state legislators

January 27, 2015

An Indiana House committee has endorsed tighter rules on the conduct of lawmakers in the wake of an ethics investigation of a top Republican who fought privately to defeat legislation that would have hurt his family's business.

The House Ethics Committee voted unanimously to approve a revised ethics code, which instructs House members to not vote on or sponsor legislation in which they have a personal financial interest, along with not carrying out any public or private advocacy on such issues.

The bill was co-sponsored by House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, and House Minority Leader Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City.

Committee Chairman Greg Steuerwald said a major change in the new code is that House members avoid the appearance of impropriety in conducting their official duties.

"That is a very high standard," the Avon Republican said. "It began as a judicial standard and has slowly incorporated itself for lawyers and now we have put that standard here for the House members."

The rules tightening follows December's resignation of former House Speaker Pro Tem Eric Turner after The Associated Press reported that the Republican from Cicero privately lobbied fellow lawmakers to kill a proposed ban on nursing home construction that could have cost his family's business millions of dollars in revenue.

The House Ethics Committee determined last year that Turner didn't technically break the existing House rules, but that he violated the spirit of the state's ethics laws.

Also prompting the proposal were separate issues involving former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and former Department of Transportation Chief of Staff Troy Woodruff.

The new code approved by the committee — made up of three Republicans and three Democrats — must still be approved by the full House to take effect.

Neither Steuerwald nor the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Clyde Kersey, would say whether the panel would've taken different action against Turner if the new proposed standards had been in place.

Kersey, a Terre Haute Democrat, said the new code will have clearer rules for all members.

"This will not stop a legislator from doing something that is unethical," he said. "But what it does, it gives the committee a document to look at to evaluate whether that action was unethical or not."

A broader bill that will overhaul the state's ethics laws is awaiting action by legislators. That bill, which is co-sponsored by the House Republican and Democratic leaders, would have legislators face more financial disclosure requirements and expressly prohibit elected officials from using state resources for political purposes.

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