Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Columns

April 18, 2014

LoBianco: Bigger ethics questions raised in House Turner review

Family’s lucrative nursing home construction business at center of inquiry

Members of the House Ethics Committee who will take up Rep. Eric Turner’s case face daunting tasks as they try to answer two questions: Did their powerful colleague violate any ethics rules in privately lobbying against a measure that would have hurt his family’s business? And are their own ethics rules substantial enough?

At the center of the inquiry is the Turner family’s lucrative nursing home construction business and legislation this past session that would have banned construction of new facilities.

According to financial documents from the two main companies at the center of this inquiry — Mainstreet Property Group and HealthLease Properties — Turner, son Zeke Turner and other investors stood to lose millions if the ban passed. Turner has denied any wrongdoing and contends the company would have simply taken its business to other states.

House rules bar formal and public actions that directly benefit a lawmaker. Turner recused himself from votes publicly, but Republican lawmakers say he spoke up in private meetings of the House Republican caucus in the last two days of the legislative session and was successful in killing the ban.

The ethics committee appeared ready to meet last week, but the meeting was pushed off indefinitely. When its members do return, they’ll tackle some pointed questions about Turner’s actions, ethicists say.

Stuart Yoak, executive director for the Association of Practical and Professional Ethics at Indiana University, says Turner’s decision not to tell the public how much money he and others had on the line raises two clear questions.

“One is obviously outright deception,” he said. “He’s deceiving his constituency about those issues that are driving his decision-making. The way we generally try in our public arena to expose that deception is through transparency.”

Turner has been open about his investment in Mainstreet, and his state financial disclosure forms list a broad interest in the company and others run by his son. But the forms say nothing of the $2 million or more Turner and others make on each nursing home deal.

The second question for Turner, Yoak said, is whether his personal interest is at odds with his public duty.

“The second piece is his public interest as opposed to his public duties, and the responsibility he has that’s different from you and I,” he said.

“We all have self-interest, there’s nothing wrong with self-interest, and it’s actually a good thing in many cases. But the problem here is that you end up with a conflict of self-interest and public duty,” Yoak said. “And that’s the piece that needs to be clarified.”

Turner has yet to speak publicly about his arguments inside the Republican Caucus this year. But he was asked about the issue last year, when he worked behind the scenes to clear a path for a multimillion-dollar contract for Utah-based Insure Rite, which was being represented at the Statehouse by his daughter, Jessaca Turner Stults. Asked at the time if he was representing his personal interest or that of his constituents, he scoffed and said he always looks out for the people who elected him first.

Yoak says others in his field often view the relationship between the law and ethics as two circles — the law represented by one sphere and ethics the other. In one scenario, they can be separate and completely unrelated — the law has nothing to do with ethical conduct. In another, they overlap in some areas, but not all, like a Venn diagram.

And in the view many ethicists have, Yoak said, the law is a smaller, concentric circle sitting within the larger circle of ethics — the law embodies ethics, but ethics is a much bigger universe.

It’s easy for anyone to violate ethical conduct, he said, without ever breaking the law or any rules.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma first promised an ethics review last spring, following news reports about lawmakers with conflicts of interest. But it was not until Turner’s lobbying was reported this year — and Democratic Party Chairman John Zody called for an investigation of his actions — that Bosma sought the review.

The relative strength of the House’s own ethics rules, and whether they contain too many loopholes, will be one of the chief issues the ethics panel takes on when it meets.

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

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