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July 16, 2014

Loopholes a mile wide

At least Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma agrees that it’s time to close the loopholes in the ethics policies for state employees.

Just how gaping some of those holes are became clear last week, as the State Ethics Commission sorted through the cases of several in high-ranking spots in state government.

Tony Bennett, Indiana’s former superintendent of public instruction, was fined $5,000 after members of his staff used state computers to keep track of his political calendar and to keep lists of his top donors. Bennett paid a price, sure. But the ethics commission ruling included a caveat: If Bennett had come up with an office policy that covered “limited used of state property for non-official purposes,” he would have been within the letter of the law. So, basically, Bennett just didn’t realize the state gave him — and every other state officeholder working on the next campaign — an out.

Troy Woodruff, chief of staff for the Indiana Department of Transportation, came to the commission asking for dispensation from the state’s one-year “cooling off” period as he courts a possible job with a state highway contractor. Commission members didn’t seem comfortable with signing off on that cozy relationship, given Woodruff’s title and the fact that he’s signed off on hundreds of thousands of dollars in state work for the company in question.

But here’s the kicker: If his boss, INDOT Commissioner Karl Browning, signs off on a cooling-off-period waiver, Woodruff can leave with no strings.

As Julie Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, told The Indianapolis Star: “If this is cleared by the ethics commission, they just need to throw the cooling-off law in the trash.”

Heap those on top of the case of state Rep. Eric Turner, a Cicero Republican who was cleared by the ethics committee earlier this year. Turner was accused of lobbying behind closed doors against a bill that would have put a moratorium on construction of nursing homes — and directly touched business investments of his family and himself. Because he didn’t vote on the bill, the commission ruled Turner violated only the spirit, not the letter, of House ethics rules.

“We’re already working on fairly comprehensive legislative ethics reform for the upcoming session,” Bosma told The Indianapolis Star. He said he was willing to look at laws affecting these cases “to see if they need to be tightened up as well.”

At least he, too, sees there’s a big problem with laws that claim to keep state officials in check but come nowhere close to actually doing it.

— Lafayette Journal & Courier

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