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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Ind. Gov't. - "Panel punts on ethics changes: No action taken; witnesses discuss interest conflicts"

That is the headline to Niki Kelly's story this morning in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Some quotes:

INDIANAPOLIS – Five House members heard testimony Monday about possible changes to ethics laws for legislators. But they won’t be recommending any solutions.

Instead, the House Ethics Committee will simply summarize the testimony and forward it to legislative leaders for possible action in the 2015 General Assembly. The Senate Ethics Committee also did not participate.

One area that was pinpointed was conflict of interest.

“This is one of the most interesting ethical issues that we all face as public officials because it’s so gray,” said Peggy Kerns, head of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “So much of it is based on your own standards and values.”

She presented material to the group regarding Indiana’s law compared with other states.

Kerns said the backgrounds and the experience that lawmakers bring is important – especially in a part-time citizen legislature.

“But there is a fine line between advocating for a personal position and advocating for a subject area,” she said. * * *

Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, said lawmakers considering ethics reform need to adjust the law so that there is some difference between providing expertise and engaging in advocacy.

“Lobbying for the passage or defeat of legislation is a very different thing, particularly when a member has disclosed a conflict,” she said. “You all know the difference.”

Some other changes Vaughn suggested include:

•Adding a preamble to the code of ethics telling the public lawmakers will ensure the public interest is protected.

•Prohibiting any members from using their position for private gain for themselves, their immediate family or business partner.

•Posting Statements of Economic Interests online, and make them searchable. The Indiana House has posted them for years but the Indiana Senate does not.

•Requiring disclosure of any personal or business relationship between legislator and lobbyist.

•Adding the disclosure of real property interests to the economic statement.

•Allowing the public to file ethics complaints and adding a secondary ethics commission or board so that there is an independent prong to lawmakers investigating their colleagues.

•Adding or increasing penalties for late, incomplete or erroneous filings.

Yesterday's meeting of the House Ethics Committee was little publicized. However, Tony Cook's story today in the Indianapolis Star begins:
Perhaps the most notable thing about Monday’s meeting of the House Ethics Committee on possible ethics reforms was the number of people who showed up to voice concerns and make suggestions.

Three.

And two of those were former lawmakers.

The meeting at the Statehouse was supposed to give the public an opportunity to weigh in on state ethics reform – something House Speaker Brian Bosma has said Republicans will prioritize during the upcoming legislative session.

The meeting grew out of the ethics controversy surrounding Rep. Eric Turner’s role in killing legislation that would have hurt his family’s nursing home development business. Turner has since announced that he will resign if he wins re-election in November.

But for all the complaints one hears about such behavior, the response at Monday’s ethics meeting was less than robust.

From Dan Carden's story today in the NWI Times:
Experts advised the House Ethics Committee on Monday that Indiana needs to update its public disclosure requirements for state lawmakers.

The panel is assessing the Legislature's ethical standards ahead of proposals expected in the 2015 session requiring lawmakers more fully disclose their economic interests and any conflicts of interest.

The review follows allegations that state Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, improperly lobbied House Republicans in a private meeting to vote against a measure that would have financially harmed his family business.

Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, said the business world has changed greatly in the two decades since the General Assembly's economic disclosure form was last updated and items like subsidiary businesses or holding companies now ought to be reported.

"Transparency is an important piece of this and I think simply updating the Statement of Economic Interests to reflect today's business practices, and to be inclusive of the financial relationships that part-time legislators can have in the real world, will go a long way to making clear any conflicts of interest that might exist," Vaughn said.

Other states require more information from legislators than Indiana does, observed Peggy Kerns, ethics director at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

She suggested Hoosier lawmakers may want to look at requiring representatives and senators disclose all real estate they own and any personal connections to Statehouse lobbyists, reveal all sources of income for themselves and their immediate family members, along with publishing that material online.

House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said last week he is committed to improving transparency to safeguard the public's trust and plans to work with Democrats to enact meaningful ethics reforms.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on October 21, 2014 09:27 AM
Posted to Indiana Government