Pushing ethical boundaries hurts integrity of government, harms public confidence

INDIANAPOLIS — When tempers flare and beer is involved, the result normally is a bar fight.

In Indiana right now, though, the battle is before the Indiana Election Commission. And that spat illustrates the many challenges involved in drafting and enforcing campaign finance laws and ethical codes when there is a determination to exploit any cracks in the wall.

The Indianapolis Star reported that the Indiana Beverage Alliance (or IBA), a group of beer distributors, has filed a complaint with the election commission that Monarch Beverage, the state’s largest beer distributor, has been flouting the state’s laws governing political contributions.

State law limits most businesses to making no more than $22,000 in political contributions during a year. A loophole allows limited liability corporations — companies set up so that their assets (and presumably interests) are separate so their owners’ other assets can be isolated and protected — to give without encountering any meaningful legal limits.

Many Indiana businesses develop cozy relationships with LLCs — relationships that allow them to evade the campaign contribution restrictions.

Few appear to have done it as aggressively as Monarch — if the complaint is even remotely accurate.

Monarch’s vehicle is Vision Concepts LLC. Monarch and Vision Concepts share the same leadership — the chief executive officer for both is the same person — and Monarch is Vision Concepts’ largest customer. Over the past 12 years, Vision Concepts has made nearly $1.5 million in campaign contributions — nearly six times the amount that Monarch legally would have been entitled to give.

Representatives for Monarch insist that they have done nothing illegal.

That’s the disturbing thing. It’s possible they may not have.

At the heart of the complaint is an Indiana law that prevents entities from making political contributions in another name. But, so long as there’s a record of transactions — and my guess is that the folks at Monarch were smart enough to maintain that record — the money stopped being Monarch’s and started belonging to the LLC as soon as the transaction was complete, however inflated the price for that transaction might be.

If that’s the case, Monarch honored the letter of the law while treating the spirit of the law the way a person with a cold treats a tissue.

And that, sadly, is of a pattern with Indiana’s political culture.

This is, of course, the state in which Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, took a look at the ethics rules regarding conflicts of interest and determined that, so long as he didn’t vote on a measure in which he had a financial interest, he could lobby as aggressively as a rabid dog for that interest behind the scenes in caucus. Because the Indiana House of Representatives had and has a supermajority, the vote that mattered on the measure was in that caucus, away from public scrutiny.

Indiana Supreme Court Justice Mark Massa used similarly narrow and selective reasoning to determine whether he had a conflict of interest.

Environmental groups had requested that Massa recuse himself from ruling on litigation involving a controversial coal-to-synthetic gas plant conversion in Rockport, Indiana. The groups argued that Massa’s close personal friendship with the Indiana director for the project, Mark Lubbers, and his service as general counsel for Gov. Mitch Daniels when the plant conversion was being conceived created a conflict of interest and pretty much guaranteed that the justice had extrajudicial knowledge of the issue.

Massa dismissed those concerns as blithely as a debutante discarding an old dance card.

He said his nearly 30-year friendship with Lubbers was of no consequence and he knew nothing about the enabling legislation that made the plant possible.

What all of these episodes — Monarch, Turner, Massa — have in common is a canny understanding on the part of the actors as to where the precise legal or ethical boundaries are and a steely determination to find ways to push against and stretch those boundaries. They see the rules as something to outmaneuver rather than something to honor.

Such an approach doubtless helps a person or business advance questions of self-interest.

As to whether it enhances public confidence in the integrity of Indiana’s state government and political process — well, that’s another thing altogether, now isn’t it?

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.