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-).
The new results were even worse than in 2012, when Indiana received a score of 70 for a C-, with a rank of 23rd. Scores for the two surveys are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve the project and methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that usually occurs every 10 years.
Below the surface
To John Krull, director of Franklin College’s School of Journalism, the generally poor scores this year reflect a deeper problem: the need for a cultural transformation to improve ethical behavior within state government.
“For the past 50-plus years, we’ve had candidates at all levels running as if government is the enemy,” said Krull, publisher of The Statehouse File, a Franklin College news website. “If we treat the process of self-government with contempt, this is where that leads. If you don’t approach it with the idea that the work is honorable, then it’s a lot easier in your own mind to justify cutting corners.”
Krull, a former leader of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, also links the lack of accountability to gerrymandered political districts, which he believes have given the GOP a stranglehold in Indiana. Republicans now have “super-majorities” in both chambers of the legislature, and the GOP holds all statewide elected offices, except the schools superintendent position.
“As long as you have somewhere between 85 to 90 percent of legislative districts not being competitive, and as long as you allow them to protect themselves and others in their wake from anything that resembles consequences to their behavior,” Krull said, “you’re not going to move the needle significantly.”
Other political watchdogs point to gaps in laws, lax enforcement and a dearth of leaders pushing meaningful reforms.
Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, an advocacy group, said the state’s poor scores reflect a deep-rooted reluctance to strengthen officials’ financial disclosure requirements and enact substantive ethics changes.
“We are dabbling our toes in the water in ethics reform, when we need to jump in the pool and immerse ourselves,” said Vaughn.
A down payment
Yet the new ethics law did make numerous adjustments: broadening lawmaker financial disclosures, such as requiring them to list close relatives who are lobbyists and disclose business ownerships worth at least $500,000; creating an ethics counselor within the Legislative Services Agency to advise lawmakers; barring any elected official or employee from using state money, facilities or personnel for political purposes; and tightening waiver rules for the one-year “cooling off” period required of state officials before they can take private-sector jobs dealing with their former departments.
Republican Speaker of the House Brian Bosma conceded to The Indianapolis Star in February that changing the legislative culture “[is] not without its growing pains.” Indeed, some of the headlines punctuated his point. For instance, House Energy Chairman Eric Koch, a Republican, withdrew a bill that would have prevented local governments from regulating oil and gas drilling after The Star reported he had investments in at least 30 gas and oil firms, some with interests in Indiana. And House Education Chairman Robert Behning, also a Republican, abandoned plans to lobby in other states for a student testing firm that runs Indiana’s end-of-course assessments.
But the changes ultimately enacted, said Bosma, are significant. The law, he said, was designed to increase public transparency regarding legislators’ business and personal interests, give public officials guidance on ethical “gray areas,” and close loopholes in executive branch ethics regulations. “I am confident that those goals have been reached, giving Indiana one of the strongest ethics codes in the nation.”
How those codes are administered, though, could be another matter. Some veteran political observers in the state have concerns over enforcement of the ethics law, and lax enforcement of laws controlling political financing and public records. Tabulations from the State Integrity Investigation show Indiana was among the states with the most significant “enforcement gap,” which measures the difference between the laws themselves and how well they’re enforced.
“It’s always a matter of how things are implemented,” said Joseph Losco, chair of the Ball State University political science department, and co-director of the Bowen Center for Public Affairs. Losco would prefer that an independent ethics commission oversee the new law.
Results in other categories of the State Integrity Investigation revealed additional challenges. While Indiana’s public records access law is well-established, some advocates are calling for improvements to increase access and eliminate exclusions, such as one covering legislative emails. One of Indiana’s lowest grades — a score of 47 — was for public access to information.
As someone who has sought information from numerous state governments, Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at the Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne campus, has grappled with Indiana’s problems firsthand, even though a good amount of data is online.
“But the data needs to be available in a more usable format,” he said.
Indiana’s public access counselor, in addition, doesn’t have power to enforce his rulings.
“Rather than simply making recommendations, the counselor should be given more authority to say [information] must be turned over to the public, instead of making the person go to court,” Downs said.
Others, like Stephen Key, Hoosier State Press Association executive director, see it differently. He says the counselor now resolves about 90 percent of complaints through advisory opinions and education. He fears fewer overall cases would be resolved if the counselor had enforcement authority, creating an adversarial relationship with state agencies.
Indiana’s lowest score — a 38 in political financing — reflects a system with no contribution limits for nearly all individuals to candidates, no limits on lobbyists’ donations to candidates and parties, and restrictions on donations by corporations and labor organizations that some claim can be easily circumvented.
Currently, a campaign finance battle involving Indiana’s largest beer distributor, Monarch Beverage, illustrates a loophole that companies can use to skirt contribution limits. The Indiana Beverage Alliance, a group of small beer distributors, says in a 2015 complaint pending before the Indiana Election Commission that Monarch illegally funneled $1.47 million in campaign cash through a limited liability company called Vision Concepts. Corporate limits don’t apply to certain kinds of businesses, including limited liability companies.
“Our campaign finance disclosure system is incredibly opaque,” said Vaughn, of Common Cause Indiana.
That opacity, plus the actions of lawmakers and state officials that violate or skirt standards, Vaughn said, make people lose confidence in state government. “How scandalous do things have to become,” she said, “before we really address this in a holistic way?”