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Column: Tougher conflict of interest rules needed for lawmakers


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Questions about whether Republican Rep. Eric Turner of Cicero appropriately disclosed all his financial ties to the nursing home industry shouldn’t be a surprise to those who track the Indiana General Assembly.

It is after all a citizen legislature, meaning that lawmakers work part-time at the capitol and typically have other jobs.

There are teachers, small business owners, union workers, doctors, insurance agents and dozens of other professions represented in the legislature. And lawmakers routinely act on legislation that affects their professions.

Lawyers serve on judicial and criminal code committees. Insurance agents serve on insurance committees. Teachers serve on education committees.

A part-time legislature is a study in conflict. That’s why there are few more important jobs of a lawmaker than to appropriately disclose his or her potential conflicts. That takes two things — a good reporting system and personal responsibility.

The former is the job of the legislature collectively. The General Assembly and its leaders need to require members to disclose all ways in which they could have a personal or financial interest in legislation. In Turner’s case, he apparently owns interests in companies that own nursing home companies — and current rules didn’t require him to disclose that interest in a way that is transparent to the public.

No surprise.

The state received a grade of D- in the “legislative accountability” category of the State Integrity Investigation, an examination of America’s state capitols by several good-government organizations. The state scored worst in the area of regulations that govern conflicts of interest by members of the state legislature.

I was interviewed as part of the study, and I said that the disclosure reports filed by lawmakers provide some useful information but that the forms aren’t detailed enough to help the public or the press track whether a lawmaker could be acting in his or her own self interest — beyond the most obvious situations.

The House Ethics Committee is going to spend part of the summer studying the issue. The group cleared Turner last week, saying that he didn’t violate any House rules or the chamber’s ethics code when he lobbied behind closed doors to kill a bill that would have cost him millions of dollars.

But the committee also said that Turner’s actions did not achieve “the highest spirit of transparency.” In other words, he didn’t disclose the stuff that would have ensured the public — and his fellow lawmakers — understood his financial interest in the issue.

Now even Turner says it would be “a good thing” to require more disclosure from all lawmakers, according to WIBC radio. There’s no excuse now for lawmakers not to make their rules as tight and taxpayer friendly as possible.

That brings us to the second essential piece in preventing problems with conflicts of interest: Personal responsibility.

It’s unlikely that any set of rules — no matter how carefully crafted — could cover every financial situation ever encountered by a legislator. That’s why it’s up to every legislator to act in a way that removes even the appearance of a conflict.

Voters already are skeptical that elected officials act in the public’s best interest. I think, in fact, the public is overly distrustful. But situations like the one involving Turner only validate the cynicism. Lawmakers owe it to their constituents to do better.

Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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