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June 12, 2013

LoBIANCO: INDOT memo shucks info in public tug-of-war

— By one stroke this year, Indiana lawmakers and the new governor vastly improved the public’s ability to find out how the show is run here at the Statehouse, while in another, top managers at the Indiana Department of Transportation quietly clamped down on what’s available.

Gov. Mike Pence and a bipartisan group of lawmakers reversed years of closed-mouth refusals from the Indiana Economic Development Corp. to show how and where taxpayer money was spent on job creation and economic development. Pence touted the measure at a May bill signing, saying it would “ensure public confidence in our economic development efforts.”

But officials at INDOT went the opposite direction, telling public employees to stop putting their opinions in public documents, shortly after The Indianapolis Star used those documents to unearth accusations of favoritism on a project benefiting INDOT chief of staff Troy Woodruff’s family. Woodruff directed INDOT employees to spend $770,000 re-making a connection to I-69 benefiting his family’s farmland along the new highway.

A highway supervisor dubbed it the “Troy Woodruff Re-Do”, according to The Star. But INDOT’s new rules would bar statements like that.

“All information that is necessary for complete documentation of project construction should be reported factually without the addition of personal opinions, editorial comments, or criticism of individuals, companies or INDOT,” officials wrote in a memo to state workers.

INDOT also ordered employees to stop replying to emails in chains, creating long strings of information that could potentially unearth more information via public records requests.

INDOT spokesman Will Wingfield said the new policy would protect the state from lawsuits and civil claims that rely on statements made in public documents. “There’s a lot more at stake there,” he said. He added he did not know whether the new orders were drafted in response to the Star’s Woodruff investigation.

Gerry Lanosga, president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government, said he was “offended at the idea that officials are asking public employees to self-censor what they put in routine logs like the ones at issue here.”

“Employees shouldn’t feel pressure not to be forthcoming about their professional evaluations in such documents, but asking them to keep their personal opinions out will almost certainly cause them to hesitate in offering qualitative judgments regarding programs and projects that could be very valuable to the public,” he said.

Lanosga compiled a 2012 report for the Center for Public Integrity giving Indiana an “F” for public access, detailing broad exemptions in the state law that allow public officials to withhold information. Lanosga, a former investigative reporter, pointed out that the public is often granted access to its governments in starts and stops. One measure, like the new IEDC rules, open the door to the public, while another, like INDOT’s, closes it.

For years, IEDC would tout plans by companies to create new jobs in Indiana, but would not say exactly how many were created. Leaders under former Gov. Mitch Daniels refused to provide that information, with the admonition that showing how many jobs were created could spook other businesses looking at Indiana.

But Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, led the charge earlier this year to require IEDC deliver more information about how many jobs companies it wooed to the state actually created. Pence backed the measure and also created a new online portal, making it easier to review IEDC information.

The INDOT policy might be a step backward, but the long push for IEDC transparency was a clear step forward.

Tom LoBianco covers Indiana politics for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter @tomlobianco.

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