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Indiana ethics cases find frustration in lack of disclosure

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The three major ethics cases involving Indiana officials this year have one thread that ties them together: frustration from ethics watchdogs over a lack of disclosure and transparency.

Inspector General David Thomas talked at length about both last week as he released an 81-page report formally clearing former Indiana Department of Transportation chief of staff Troy Woodruff of any criminal wrongdoing in a series of land deals and a bridge reconstruction benefiting his family.

Thomas said that four years of scrutiny and two separate investigations could have been avoided if Woodruff had simply listened to his agency's ethics officer in 2009 and disclosed his stake in the land being bought by his agency as part of an Interstate 69 project. Instead, because he hid his interest, his office, federal investigators and The Indianapolis Star spent extensive amounts of time digging into his interests and potential conflicts of interest.

"I think that's what people want. They want to feel there is not something hidden," Thomas said.

He pointed to cases in which special prosecutors are appointed at the federal level.

"The indictments are not for what they started to look at, it's for the cover-ups," he said.

In the three top ethics cases decided this year -- involving Woodruff, House Speaker Pro Tem Eric Turner and former Indiana Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett -- investigators found the officials withheld crucial information from their peers and the public.

In the case of Turner, who helped defeat a ban on nursing home construction that would have been disastrous for his family's nursing home construction company, the House Ethics Committee determined that he did not break any formal rules. But afterward, lawmakers expressed surprise at the amount of his personal stake in the company and a report that $345,000 in state tax credits was awarded on of his family's projects.

In Bennett's case, confusion statewide from educators about how he determined "A-F" school grades in 2012 was cleared last year with the publication of emails showing he secretly overhauled the system twice to ensure a charter school run by a top Republican donor received a top grade as he'd pledged it would. A legislative review found that other schools benefited from two changes Bennett made as well, but the donor's charter school was the only one to benefit from both changes.

Bennett was fined $5,000 for using state resources to campaign, but state investigators found no other ethical violations against Bennett or Turner.

All three decisions left ethics experts shaking their heads.

Thomas acknowledged that Woodruff danced close to the ethical line. House lawmakers had similar views of Turner's push to kill the proposed nursing home construction ban.

Stuart Yoak, executive director of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics at Indiana University, said many of the problems stem from the fact that a hard-and-fast legal system is not always suited to handling questions of public integrity.

"There is a clear distinction between the narrow area of the law and the much broader are of ethics," Yoak said. "And so you've got an IG who is doing what his job tells him to do, which is to find on matters of fact related to the law, and in this case he came to the conclusion there were no legal violations he could recommend prosecution on."

House lawmakers considering ethics reforms in response to the Turner case say they are going to look at new transparency rules for lawmakers. In his report on Woodruff, Thomas reached the same conclusion: Better disclosure is needed.

"The OIG (Office of the Inspector General) and prosecuting attorney authorities are frequently asked to remedy situations where state workers engage in conduct that is close to, but does not actually violate, criminal and/or ethics laws. We believe these types of situations illustrate the reason why the Indiana Legislature authorizes the OIG to recommend potential solutions to these circumstances," Thomas wrote.

A series of ethics scandals under Democrats 10 years ago led former Gov. Mitch Daniels to campaign hard against a "culture of corruption" at the Statehouse. Upon taking office in 2005, he pushed through ethics reforms that created the inspector general and appointed Thomas.

A decade later, Democrats are the ones howling about a "culture of corruption" under Republican leadership.

Whether the problems uncovered in the three cases result in new ethics reforms is a question for the General Assembly.

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  • Quote unquote
    "Steal a little and they throw you in jail/Steal a lot and they make you king" - typifies Dylan's attitude to US politics in this era.

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  1. I grew up on a farm and live in the county and it's interesting that the big industrial farmers like Jeff Shoaf don't live next to their industrial operations...

  2. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  3. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  4. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  5. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

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