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Monday, March 31, 2014

Turner ethics matter is serious

Posted By on Mon, Mar 31, 2014 at 9:00 AM

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The House Ethics Committee will soon take up the question of whether state Rep. Eric Turner broke the chamber's rules when he advocated in a private caucus for the defeat of legislation that would hurt a business run by his son.

Turner, a Republican from Cicero, insists he did not break House rules or the legislature's ethics code.

And - because he abstained from actual votes on the bill in question - he might not have done so.

It's important for lawmakers to find out. But it might be even more important - at least in the long term - that lawmakers decide what Turner did should have been against the rules and will be in the future.

Here's what reportedly happened:

Hoosier lawmakers were considering legislation earlier this month that would have extended a moratorium on new nursing home construction but it died on the session's last day. A report by the Associated Press said that happened after Turner lobbied in a private caucus against it.

Turner's actions matter because his son, Zeke Turner, operates Mainstreet Properties, a nursing home construction company. Also, the legislator's daughter, Jessaca Turner Stults, is the company's lobbyist. The company would benefit if the moratorium ended.

After the stories came out, Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody asked House Speaker Brian Bosma for an investigation. Bosma sent the request to the House Ethics Committee for consideration.

Most observers thought the issue might just die there. After all, Ethics Chairman Greg Steuerwald's initial reaction was to point out that Turner's lobbying took place behind closed doors. "It's well known that (discussions within caucus) are private and confidential," Steuerwald said.

But Bosma didn't just ask the committee to consider whether Turner did something to break House rules or the ethics code. He asked members to also consider whether the code or the chamber's statement of economic interest should be changed "to give further transparency and openness to the legislative process."

Last week, Steuerwald said there would be a hearing on the matter.

It's not clear yet whether that hearing is to see if Turner broke a rule or whether the rules should change - or both.

But if the public is to retain confidence in the Indiana General Assembly, the Ethics Committee members must be fair and thorough on both accounts.

The General Assembly is a citizen-legislature, which makes it impossible to eliminate all potential conflicts of interest. Teachers, small business owners, union members and public employees are all members of the legislature. And issues concerning schools, taxes, businesses and local governments come before those members daily during the session.

In many cases, lawmakers recuse themselves from votes that affect their lives. Retired teaches, for example, abstain from votes about public employee retirement spending.

But not all situations are so simple. And therefore, clear and fair ethics rules are needed to ensure those lawmakers act appropriately so the public can feel confident decisions are made in the public interest - not for personal reasons.

Lesley Weidenbener is the executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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