Indiana lawmakers send tougher ethics bill to Pence

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Indiana legislators gave final approval Monday to a state ethics law overhaul that requires greater financial disclosure by lawmakers and expressly prohibits elected officials from using state resources for political purposes.

The House voted unanimously to endorse the bill that the Senate previously approved.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said the proposal aims to increase transparency and limit conflict of interests.

The bill's provisions include tightening the rules on waivers for the state's one-year "cooling off" period for state agency officials taking private-sector jobs that would deal with their former departments. It also broadens the personal financial disclosures of lawmakers, such as requiring them to list any close relatives who are lobbyists and disclose any business ownership they have that are worth at least $500,000.

"The goal really was so a citizen could get online and look and really see what the business interests were of their elected officials," Bosma said.

The bill now goes to Gov. Mike Pence, who can sign the bill into law, let it pass into law without his signature or veto it.

The measure would bar any elected official or employee from using state money, facilities or personnel for political purposes.

That step follows an investigation into former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett's use of state staff and resources during his 2012 re-election campaign and a review of a senior lawmaker's private lobbying last year to kill legislation that could have cost his family's nursing home business millions of dollars.

A state inspector general's public report found minimal violations by Bennett and his staff and said those could easily have been avoided by rewriting department policy to allow for campaigning. But a separate report detailed extensive use of staff and Bennett's state-issued SUV for political work. The inspector general's investigator suggested Bennett could face federal wire fraud charges and state ghost-employment charges.

Bennett, a Republican, has not been charged with any criminal violations and has denied any wrongdoing.

House Democratic Leader Scott Pelath, who co-sponsored the ethics bill with Bosma, said he believed the proposal made important updates to maintain the public's confidence in having a part-time Legislature.

"The public will get the best, most updated information so they can judge the work that we do here," Pelath said.

Julia Vaughn, policy director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Indiana, said she believed the bill was a step in the right direction, although she was disappointed that enforcement of the conflict-of-interest violations remained with the House and Senate ethics committees rather than an independent commission.

"There will be more transparency and so it will be up to citizens to demand a different enforcement process if they find they're not satisfied with the one that's in place," Vaughn said.

The proposed tightening of disclosure requirements follows December's resignation of former Republican House Speaker Pro Tem Eric Turner, who was the subject of an ethics investigation after he privately lobbied lawmakers to kill a proposed ban on nursing home construction that could have hurt his family's business.

The House Ethics Committee determined Turner didn't technically violate House ethics rules in place at the time barring lawmakers from using the office for their own self-interest.

Bosma said he didn't know how many legislators would have business ownership interests that topped the $500,000 level.

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