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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Ind. Gov't. - "Panel reviews Rep. Eric Turner’s denial of ethics violations"

Here are some stories on Eric Turner's hearing yesterday before the House statutory ethics committee.

From Barb Berggoetz of the Indianapolis Star:

The House Ethics Committee on Wednesday delayed making a decision about whether Rep. Eric Turner broke any ethics rules when he lobbied behind the scenes against a nursing home construction moratorium that could have cost him and his family millions of dollars.

Turner, the second-highest ranking member of the House, did not testify and was not at the meeting, but the six committee members reviewed written responses to questions he answered from Chairman Rep. Greg Steuerwald and ranking Democratic member Clyde Kersey.

In those statements, he said he violated no House rules because he did not vote on the proposed moratorium — which failed to pass the legislature. Turner also wrote that he disclosed every financial interest in nursing home companies that was required under a state law designed to reveal legislators’ potential conflict of interests. * * *

The ethics committee, which rarely meets, gathered at the request of House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis. He asked members on March 20 to consider concerns over whether Turner violated the House code of ethics or other House rules during his discussions about the nursing home moratorium in a private Republican caucus meeting.

Turner came under fire for working behind the scenes to kill a measure that would have temporarily halted new nursing home construction. Some Republican lawmakers said they felt Turner’s efforts represented a conflict of interest because his son and daughter led opposition to the measure, and he has financial interests in numerous nursing home entities.

Records reviewed by The Star indicate he has been involved in at least 15 companies with ties to the industry since 1997. The Associated Press reported that Turner owns 38 percent of Mainstreet Property Group, which develops senior care facilities and is owned by his family members. Mainstreet led opposition to the moratorium during the legislative session.

The three Democrats and three Republicans on the committee didn’t offer any criticism of Turner during the hourlong meeting. The committee will reconvene at 2 p.m. Wednesday to consider any action and adopt a report to send to Bosma.

Steuerwald, R-Avon, said he and Kersey, D-Terre Haute, will craft a report for the committee to consider. * * *

House ethics rules explicitly prohibit lawmakers from sponsoring or voting on issues in which they have a direct and substantial financial interest. But the rules don’t prohibit an involvement in public and private debate or behind-the-scenes advocacy during caucus meetings.

When asked after the meeting if Turner violated the spirit of the House ethics code, Kersey said, “There’s a lot of things that we don’t know anything about, of course. What went on in caucus stays in caucus. As far as everything else, he followed the rules.”

Asked if it’s morally wrong for a lawmaker to talk to fellow legislators about a bill over which he has millions of dollars on the line, Steuerwald responded, “Our charge is to take a look at the facts and apply them to our current House rules and the House code of ethics. That’s what our committee will be making a determination upon.”

Also after the meeting, Toby McClamroch, Turner’s attorney, said, “If they want to change the policies or want to change the rules, they need to examine the rules themselves. Code of ethics were just adopted by the House four months ago.

“He (Turner) operated under that code of ethics and the facts that were stated in there certainly were consistent with the code of ethics,” he said. “So, we’re pleased with the (committee’s) direction.”

From Chelsea Schneider's story in the $$ Evansville Courier & Press, headed "Ethics hearing could change Indiana House rules," some quotes:
On Wednesday, the committee reviewed Turner’s answers to a series of questions members had asked about his business interests and his actions in the 2014 legislative session. The questions were answered under oath. The committee will meet next week to discuss an advisory opinion and the conclusion of its review of Turner’s actions.

“We tried to get to the bottom of this and cover every base in terms of what happened,” said committee member Clyde Kersey, D-Terre Haute.

Turner did not publicly vote on the construction ban or sponsor legislation on the nursing home industry. Both practices are barred in the House’s ethics code. Turner wrote in testimony that he disclosed his interests and role in his son’s business to House Republicans and that the House’s ethics rules allows members to speak in their areas of expertise. Turner also wrote that he didn’t publicly offer testimony or debate the proposed construction ban while in committee or on the House floor.

The current ethics code does not address whether members should lobby on an issue of which they have a direct interest. Ethics Committee Chairman Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, said he relies on the expert opinion of his colleagues. Steuerwald noted he did not find any ethics rules which apply to caucus.

“The present rules say that each one of us are to express our knowledge and expertise within our field that’s part of what we have with the citizen legislature,” Steuerwald said. “Each of us brings to the table a different expertise, so I think it’s important everybody shows those things.”

The committee will meet over the summer to discuss possible changes to ethics rules and the disclosure form.

Rep. Gail Riecken, D-Evansville, a member of the committee, said she wants to see changes to the disclosure form, which would take legislation to amend.

“Our statement of economic interest needs to be tightened,” Riecken said, “and there needs to be more transparency somehow. We’ve got to do that.”

Turner issued a statement after the hearing thanking the committee for its work.

“I thank Chairman Steuerwald and the House Ethics Committee for conducting a thorough review of the facts, and I was pleased to answer the questions presented to me,” Turner said in prepared statement. “I am confident the Ethics Committee will conclude that I have acted within the House Rules and the House Code of Ethics, as I have for my entire 24-year legislative career.”

From Niki Kelly's story in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, some quotes:
The members – three Republicans and three Democrats – focused on the letter of the law in the House rules and its code of ethics.

Both say a member with a conflict of interest cannot vote on or sponsor legislation affecting him or her personally.

Turner, R-Cicero, did neither. Instead, he is accused of trying to sway his colleagues in a private House Republican caucus against the nursing home moratorium. The bill died in the waning hours of the legislature.

“We found no House rules or ethics rules that apply to caucus itself,” said Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, chairman of the Ethics Committee.

Turner acknowledged in a statement that he has an ownership stake in Mainstreet Capital Partners, which has an interest in Mainstreet Property Group. His son, Zeke Turner, is CEO of Mainstreet Property, and his daughter, Jessaca Turner Stults, is Mainstreet’s registered lobbyist.

The businesses build nursing homes. Turner claimed the construction ban would have had “no significant effect” on Mainstreet’s business model, but an Associated Press report said he stood to lose millions in future profits.

Turner admitted in the written interrogatories sent by the Ethics Committee that he spoke on the bill in caucus but said he prefaced it with disclosure of his family’s financial involvement.

He said he offered his “particular expertise on the nursing home industry and the nursing home moratorium.”

Turner also pointed to a House ethics rule that says: “Every member shall give freely of his or her particular expertise during a discussion or debate upon a given proposition.”

The committee is also examining whether Turner accurately filled out his statement of economic interests.

Rep. Clyde Kersey, D-Terre Haute, said that in 2005, Turner listed every business he and his wife were involved in – but since then, he has not.

Turner said that according to the law, he didn’t have to report all the companies that a parent company owned.

From an AP story in the Gary Post-Tribune:
Turner appears to have met all the House’s financial disclosure requirements. But none of those rules required him to tell the public that he makes upward of $1 million each time Mainstreet Property Group completes another project.

Documents obtained by the AP show that Turner owns a 38 percent stake in Mainstreet Property Group through another company. Mainstreet, which is operated by his son, builds nursing homes throughout the state and then sells the homes to a Canadian company, HealthLease, which was founded by Turner’s son.

The last time the House Ethics Committee reviewed the actions of a House lawmaker was in 1996, when Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, and former Rep. Sam Turpin, R-Brownsburg, were put under the microscope. Turpin was later indicted by a grand jury for taking money from gambling interests while running the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

Turner had been in the running to lead the Ways and Means panel in 2012 but Republican lawmakers voiced concerns about his conflicts of interest with Bosma and the chairmanship went to Rep. Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, instead.

Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, said Wednesday’s hearing proves lawmakers should not police themselves. She noted that Turner’s financial stakes were much greater than those of Turpin, who failed to disclose $46,000 in payments he received in relation to a riverboat casino project.

“Mountains and molehills,” she said, shortly after hearing ended. “We are certainly talking about a much greater economic interest. And let’s not forget charges were filed against Rep. Turpin in that case, and it was certainly small potatoes (compared to Turner).”

Posted by Marcia Oddi on April 24, 2014 10:46 AM
Posted to Indiana Government