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Friday, March 21, 2014

Ind. Gov't. - More on: "Lawmaker’s conflicts tarnish entire Indiana House"

Updating this ILB post from March 20th, Tom LoBianco of the AP had a story yesterday afternoon headed "Bosma asks House Ethics Committee to review Turner." A few quotes:

INDIANAPOLIS — Speaker Brian Bosma asked members of the House Ethics Committee Thursday to determine whether a lawmaker did anything wrong by privately lobbying for his family's nursing home business.

Bosma, R-Indianapolis, wrote a letter to House Ethics Chairman Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, requesting an investigation into whether Republican Rep. Eric Turner violated any ethics rules.

The Associated Press reported Monday that Turner, R-Cicero, had lobbied other members of the Republican caucus in private last week to block a nursing home ban that would have harmed his son's business. Democratic Party Chairman John Zody asked for an ethics investigation in a letter to Bosma Tuesday that cited the AP report.

"I am forwarding this inquiry to your attention to determine whether the Rules of the Indiana House of Representatives, or other applicable authorities, have been violated," Bosma wrote. "If you find a violation, please recommend any actions you feel should be taken."

Even with Bosma's request, it's unclear whether there would be an investigation.

Steuerwald said he would have to talk with other members of the committee before deciding whether to hold a hearing. And if the members do agree to a meeting, he questioned whether anyone would testify because caucus discussions are considered private.

What follows next is what caught the ILB's eye:
"I don't think we have any means to compel people to comment," Steuerwald said. "This is from a discussion in a private caucus — I mean, geez. As you know Democrats and Republicans have those private caucus meetings every day and getting involved in the discussions that happen in caucus would be. Wow. Those are private and confidential by design."
This does not seem to bode well for any sort of reprimand or control of lobbying by legislators that would be unethical if conducted on the floor, when done outside the public eye, in caucus.

The sanctity of the caucus - What happens in the caucus stays in the caucus. Just ask Senator Mike Delph... See this Feb. 16th quote from another LoBianco story:

"We can't talk about caucus," Long said. "Just so you know on this one thing, it's our rule that we don't discuss what goes on in caucus. You know, that's private, and to the extent that anything was said today, that's a breach of our normal protocol."
But why should caususes meet in secret at all? Currently, under the open door law (ODL), a state board, for example, can't meet in private, hash out an issue, come to a decision, and then hold a pro forma vote at a public meeting. The private session constitutes a meeting and violates the open door law. (See p. 6 of the Handbook on Indiana’s Public Access Laws).

IC 5-14-3-2 defines "public agency" very broadly to include boards, commissions, departments and offices exercising administrative, judicial or legislative power. However, the Handbook discusses legislative caucuses specifically at pp. 6-7, as one of the seven statutory types of gatherings not considered to be “meetings” at IC 5-14-1.5-2. The example given in the Handbook:

Example 1: Before a tax measure is voted upon in the General Assembly, members of the majority party meet to discuss the party’s position. The meeting is not subject to the ODL. A political caucus is not transformed into a meeting subject to public scrutiny under the ODL merely because persons attending such caucuses happen to constitute a majority of a governing body.
But should this be so, in a time of governmental transparency? It wasn't that many years ago that conference committees were held in secret.

The ILB has done some very cursory research and quickly located several states at least discussing the issue of making legislative caucus meetings public.

In Tennessee, according to this story in the Knoxville News: "Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris said Wednesday that he believes the Senate Republican Caucus is obliged to meet in public ... the Senate in May of 2011 voted unanimously to incorporate a 2006 statute that says meetings of a quorum of the House and Senate must be open to the public except when considering impeachments of matters of state and national security."

"Republicans in the Kansas Senate have blocked a proposal from Democrats to require all legislative party caucus meetings to be open to the public" reports this AP story from Topeka.

From an AP story in the Massachusetts Berkshire Eagle:

Lawmakers are currently exempt from the open meeting law, and routinely conduct some of their business -- such as holding legislative caucuses and debating portions of bills like the state budget -- behind closed doors with no written record.

First Amendment groups, journalists and others have long argued that the state’s public records law is outdated and that requests are frequently ignored or rejected by government agencies, and when material is released, it often is delivered in bulky hard copy with an exorbitant fee attached.

In South Dakota the ArgusLeader had a story last month headed "Republican leaders reject call to open party’s closed-door caucuses." A quote:
"We’re basically holding hearings outside the public eye," [Rep. Stace Nelson] said. "Our open government laws here in the state of South Dakota don’t allow… our smaller bodies of government to do the same."

The Legislature’s floor sessions are open to the public, as are its committee hearings where bill testimony is taken and votes taken on whether the bills should advance to the floor. But members of both parties meet daily for an hour or more in closed-door caucuses to debate legislation. Nelson also said Republican members of the same committee sometimes meet before hearings to discuss bills in private.

Rapid City Mayor Sam Kooiker urged lawmakers to adopt the proposal, saying city councils function well under rules strictly limiting when a majority of members can meet in private.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on March 21, 2014 12:46 PM
Posted to Indiana Government