INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – 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.