This was to be the year of state ethics reform in Indiana. Before the General Assembly session cranked up in January, legislative leaders pledged ethics would be a top priority.
And for good reason.
The Statehouse, standing tall in downtown Indianapolis with its majestic stained glass dome, marble floors and granite columns, had been shaken by scandal.
During the 2014 legislative session, a top Republican House leader, Rep. Eric Turner, privately lobbied his fellow Republicans — who control both chambers — to scuttle a proposed ban on nursing home construction that would have hurt his family’s business. A House investigation cleared him of wrongdoing, but he was later stripped of leadership roles and stepped down after being re-elected. Department of Transportation official Troy Woodruff took advantage of an ethics law loophole that allowed him to skirt a one-year cooling-off period and become an independent contractor for an Indianapolis firm he’d regulated. And former state education superintendent Tony Bennett only had to pay a $5,000 fine for questionable campaign practices, including the use of state staff and computers, even though the state’s inspector general condemned his actions as wire fraud and misuse of state resources. Bennett wasn’t charged.
Ultimately, legislators approved an ethics reform law, effective in July. But even during the reform debate, two lawmakers floated proposals that drew conflict of interest charges and sharp criticism.
The atmospherics are symptomatic of broader accountability problems that doomed the Hoosier state in the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, an assessment of state government accountability and transparency conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity. Overall, Indiana earned a score of 62, a grade of D-, and ranked 29th among the states. It earned F’s in the specific categories of public access to information, political financing, state budget process, judicial accountability, ethics entities and civil service oversight. The only B’s were for state pension systems (B+) and internal auditing practices (B-).