Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, once gave me a surefire applause line.
It was when I was executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana. Turner had directed that state money fund an Easter parade in Marion – a clear violation of the establishment clauses in the U.S. and Indiana constitutions. Those clauses bar government from endorsing – much less underwriting – religious expression.
Turner wasn’t apologetic.
He said his constituents liked the parade and he’d do it again if they wanted him to.
That prompted my chicken-and-peas-circuit applause line:
“How many other rules or laws is Rep. Turner willing to break if his constituents want him to?”
“If they took a vote and asked him to rob a bank, would he do it?”
I meant it as a joke, but now, a dozen or so years later, it doesn’t sound so funny.
At the end of the last session of the Indiana General Assembly, Turner – the second most powerful figure in the House Republican caucus – found himself under fire from members of his own party. Quite a few of his fellow Republicans raised ethics concerns about his role in their caucus meetings in shaping nursing home legislation that would affect a company in which he and several family members had financial interests.
Think about that for a moment.
The ethical standards for much of Indiana state government are about as pristine as your average 19th-century barnyard outhouse. Couple that with the fear many of those legislators must have felt about possible retribution from a powerful senior colleague.
For members of the House GOP caucus to say that Turner’s actions smelled funny, the stench must have been strong enough to knock buzzards onto their backs.
The House Ethics Committee investigated Turner and said he didn’t break any of the rules, such as they are. But the committee report also said he had failed to honor “the highest spirit of transparency” by refusing to disclose the financial conflict of interest.
Then the nursing home company owned by Turner’s son – and that Turner also was tied to – entered into a $2.3 billion sale and partnership with an Ohio-based business.
That’s when the House ethics really hit the fan.
House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, stripped Turner of his leadership positions and responsibilities.
Bosma said he took the move to restore confidence in the House’s ethical standards. He also said he was going to push the House to pass a comprehensive ethics bill to address “significant gaps” in state law and legislative practice.
I guess that’s what the Grand Canyon is – a “significant gap.”
One might have thought that a forceful reprimand from the House speaker would have deterred Turner from showing any more contempt for his colleagues, the political process and the people he was supposed to serve.
Just a few days ago, Turner said he planned to resign from his seat if he is re-elected to the House this November. He said he will serve out his current term – in the process adhering, no doubt, to the high standards of professional conduct he has demonstrated thus far – but he won’t continue beyond that.
Turner has a Democratic opponent, freelance journalist Bob Ashley. If Turner wins, his seat won’t go to Ashley or any other candidate on the ballot. A caucus of precinct committee officials will get to appoint someone.
In other words, the representative to the people’s house could be someone for whom none of the people ever had a chance to vote.
Those buzzards that were knocked over backwards by Turner’s belatedly-disclosed financial conflict just went into convulsions.
Years ago, I tried to tell a joke about Eric Turner, but it’s hard to parody a parody.
Turner tells a much better joke himself. The job he likely will take when he leaves the House is with an organization that trains and mentors Christian movers and shakers.
Presumably Turner will be teaching them, among other things, about the ways in which one can exert moral leadership.
Now that’s funny.
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 service powered by Franklin College journalism students.