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Last updated: Mon. Sep. 01, 2014 - 08:44 am EDT

Indiana cases could define conflict of interest for public officials

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INDIANAPOLIS — The question of what constitutes a conflict of interest and why it matters for public officials has run throughout a string of high-profile ethics scandals in Indiana recently.

State Rep. Eric Turner's conflicts — as he represented both the people of his central Indiana district and his family's nursing home business — eventually grew too much for House Speaker Brian Bosma, who announced last week that he would remove him from his leadership role in the House.

And Troy Woodruff's work overseeing the Indiana Department of Transportation as it purchased land in southwest Indiana from him and his family spurred state and federal investigators to spend roughly four years deciding whether he violated any laws or ethics rules. In the end, they determined he hadn't.

But that investigation, and others, never addressed the question of whether the official had placed his own interest above the public's -- one definition of a conflict of interest.

Speaking in front of the Statehouse last Tuesday, Democratic candidate for auditor Mike Claytor fired off a jab at Indiana's Republicans, saying that children would do a better job of handling the ethics issues.

"I think third-graders understand what a conflict of interest is. And if we could get some third-graders in to educate some of the state officials, it might help a lot," Claytor said. "Maybe that ought to be the next proposal, that we take this to the third-grade level."

Claytor's comments, and other shots from recently emboldened Democrats, carry a partisan edge to them. But even the perception from the public that their officials are doing anything other than the public's work was enough for Bosma to put his foot down.

"There is no more important precept in a free democratic system than the expectation of impartial decision making by elected policy makers," Bosma said in a statement Friday. "In a part-time legislature, we each carry with us our own personal conflicts and influences and we must continually be on guard to set them aside, or recuse ourselves entirely from influencing that matter. Our greatest concern must be the confidence of the public in their elected officials."

Throughout the debate over Turner's efforts to shield his family business from a proposed nursing home construction ban, Statehouse insiders often pressed the case that conflicts of interest are inherent in any part-time legislature, because a legislator's outside job will inevitably be the subject of legislation at some point.

The reasoning, among many Turner supporters, was that to crack down on conflicts of interest would force the Legislature to become full-time, with all the congressional stigma that comes attached to full-time politicians.

Many lawmakers do have moderate conflicts, which they openly disclose. Teachers vote on education legislation and workers in the health care industry have voted on innumerable health and insurance measures.

But few, if any, have as direct a financial interest as Turner in stopping legislation.

Through his limited comments on the issue, Turner has said he did nothing wrong.

One of the few officials to acknowledge any mistakes was state Rep. Todd Huston, who said his dual roles working for an education contractor and advising then-schools Superintendent Tony Bennett could be perceived poorly. He said he had set in place his own ethics firewalls to ensure he was not placing the contractor's interest above the public's.

It's been hard to find those ethics firewalls in most other cases.


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