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Friday, July 11, 2014

Ind. Gov't. - "Slippery government ethics rules raise calls for reform"

Some quotes from a long, must-read article by Tony Cook, Ryan Sabalow, and Eric Weddle of the Indianapolis Star today:

Want to slam your political opponents using state computers? Just write yourself a policy.

Want to get a lucrative job with a firm whose public contracts you approved? Just ask your boss for the OK.

Want to hide a business interest that could benefit you as you pass laws? Just make sure its a subsidiary.

Public officials in Indiana can do all these things thanks to what critics say are glaring loopholes in the state’s ethics laws. The three above scenarios — and the exceptions to Indiana’s rules that allow them — were on full display in recent cases involving former Superintendent of Schools Tony Bennett, top transportation official Troy Woodruff, and powerful state Rep. Eric Turner.

The decisions in those cases, two of which came Thursday, prompted outcry from government watchdog groups and a pledge from some lawmakers — including House Speaker Brian Bosma — to prioritize ethics reform in the upcoming legislative session.

“I’m going to have to examine more closely some of these exemptions,” Bosma said Thursday. “We’re already working on fairly comprehensive legislative ethics reform for the upcoming session. It’s appropriate for us to take a look at the laws for some of these other occurrences to see if they need to be tightened up as well.”

Like many states, Indiana has laws intended to prevent long-recognized ethical problems. State officials are restricted from using government resources for political purposes, must disclose certain financial interests, and are supposed to wait at least a year before taking a job with a company they regulate or whose contracts they administer.

But in Indiana, there are lots of exceptions to those rules.

Two of those exceptions surfaced during Thursday’s State Ethics Commission meeting.

In one case, the commission agreed to fine ex-schools chief Bennett $5,000 after he used state resources for political purposes, but absolved him of allegations that he changed school grades to benefit a top political donor.

An investigation by Inspector General David Thomas found that Bennett or his staff used state computer accounts to track his political calendar, respond to political emails, and store lists of political donors.

But the investigation also noted that Bennett would have been safely within the law if he had simply penned a policy allowing such behavior.

“Dr. Bennett, as the Superintendent, had the authority to enact written policies that permitted these limited uses of state property for non-official purposes,” the IG report says. * * *

At the same meeting, the ethics commission expressed concerns about a revolving door at the state highway department, where two high-ranking officials are seeking jobs with companies that often bid on state work. A one-year cooling-off period is required in such cases to discourage companies from dangling jobs before public officials in order to win lucrative government contracts.

Woodruff, the chief of staff at the Indiana Department of Transportation, is seeking employment with engineering consulting firm RQAW Corp. During the past 18 months, Woodruff personally signed more than $500,000 worth of contracts with the company. He also sat on the selection committee that reviewed the company’s bids.

A reluctant ethics commission approved safeguards that would allow him and the other INDOT official, Deputy Commissioner Sam Sarvis, to discuss possible employment with engineering firms, but warned they were unlikely to waive the cooling-off period.

They said it was an obvious conflict of interest.

Chairman James Clevenger said he “can’t imagine I’d given an opinion OKing” Woodruff’s new job.

“Just telling you, that I think the next step is going to be a difficult one for me to do anything with,” Clevenger said.

But officials also acknowledged that the ethics commission may not have a say in the matter. That’s because Indiana law allows certain supervisors to waive the cooling-off period, bypassing the ethics commission. * * *

Those ethics cases come after a House ethics committee in May cleared Turner, that chamber’s speaker pro tem, of any wrongdoing. Turner secretly lobbied to kill a measure that would have scuttled projects worth millions of dollars to his family’s nursing home development business.

The ethics committee found that Turner had not acted in the “highest spirit of transparency,” but technically broke no rules. That’s because House ethics rules only prevent lawmakers from voting on issues in which they have a financial interest, not from advocating on them.

Lawmakers are required to disclose their financial interests annually, but Turner did not list some companies in which he had a financial interest. The reason: They were technically owned by another companies rather than him, personally. The other company, however, was owned by him.

Although that doesn’t remove his financial interest, it does absolve him of the requirement to disclose the interest under current Indiana law.

The case prompted the ethics committee to commend reviewing House ethics rules. * * *

Democrats, the minority in both chambers of the legislature, also said something needs to change.

House Minority Leader Scott Pelath said the inspector general and the ethics commission don’t operate with enough transparency.

“In too many instances, once a complaint or a request for an investigation is made, it disappears down the rat hole at the ethics commission,” he said. “Ask for an update and you get told that the Inspector General cannot comment on pending cases. Then all is decided and you’re left wondering what happened.”

Posted by Marcia Oddi on July 11, 2014 09:19 AM
Posted to Indiana Government