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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. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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