By Hannah Troyer & Lesley Weidenbener
Legislators need to be more transparent about conflicts of interest and should never be lobbying privately or publicly for issues that could impact their finances, an open-government advocate said Monday.
The General Assembly should also add some independence to its ethics investigations, said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana. Currently, a legislative committee investigates lawmakers accused of breaking state ethics laws or rules.
“We understand this internal process is extremely difficult,” Vaughn told the House Ethics Committee during a meeting Monday at the Statehouse. “It’s fraught with peril. It’s not fair to the folks on the committee, it’s not fair to the person who had the complaint filed against them, but most importantly, it’s not fair to the public.”
Vaughn said the Indiana Constitution requires that lawmakers pass judgment on their own members. But she said investigations into ethics complaints should be led by a pair of non-legislators – one Republican and one Democrat – who can help root out the facts before the committee makes a decision.
That would give the investigation “some independence and give the public some faith that the committee will be able to do a fair investigation and get to the bottom of whatever the complaint entailed,” Vaughn said.
Monday’s committee meeting was the group’s first since last April when it concluded that Republican Rep. Eric Turner of Cicero did not violate House rules when he lobbied in a closed-door caucus for a bill that benefited him and his family financially. But the committee determined that Turner’s actions did not achieve “the highest spirit of transparency.”
Later House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, announced that Turner would lose his leadership position over the flap and the leader pledged to push for ethics reforms when the legislature reconvened in January. And last month, Turner said he would leave the General Assembly after the November election, even if he wins his race.
On Monday, Vaughn acknowledged the situation involving Turner with recommendations that the General Assembly do more to require its members to disclose financial ties they have to legislation – and to refrain from any lobbying on those issues. Turner didn’t violate rules because his interests were buried in holding companies, which he did list on his disclosure forms.
Vaughn gave the committee a list of seven questions that should be included on lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms to clarify their business relationships. “We want to drill down to every sub corporation there could be,” she said. “We made our best attempt at figuring out every eventuality.”
And she said those disclosure forms – which the House posts online but the Senate does not – should be more readily available to the public with a searchable database and direct links from lawmakers’ web pages.
Indiana is one of 47 states that require lawmakers to file financial disclosure forms, said Peggy Kerns, director of the National Conference of State Legislatures. But Indiana is one of 14 states that don’t require lawmakers to disclose property interests.
Some states put those forms online but others require those who want to see them to jump through hoops. “One of the criticisms and controversies of financial disclosure is the confidentiality of some of the information,” Kerns said. “Some states have raised that as a concern.”
And Kerns acknowledged that there are gray areas in conflict of interest laws and rules. Generally, the rules address situations in which a lawmaker could benefit personally from legislation But they are not as clear about whether a conflict exists when a lawmaker is part of a group that benefits from legislation – such as a teacher voting on education issues.
The issues are especially complicated for Indiana and other states with part-time legislatures, in which lawmakers are generally working other jobs when they’re not at the Statehouse, Kerns said.
“I wanted to stress that the background and the experience and the education lawmakers bring to their jobs is important, the ability to share that is important,” Kerns said. There’s a “fine line between advocating a personal position and advocating for experience an expertise. Part of being a citizen-legislature is that you’re not an expert in everything” and therefore take advice from others with more experience in an area.
But public perception is important, she said. The public “needs to be assured someone is voting for the public interest not their own,” she said.
The committee plans to meet again in December to hash out recommendations for changes to the state’s ethics rules.
Hannah Troyer is a reporter and Lesley Weidenbener is editor for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.