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Crossing a line

State government awash in ‘culture of cronyism’


Just as the gloom of winter clears, a cloud of ethical impropriety seems to have settled in at the Indiana Statehouse. As isolated cases, transgressions can be dismissed as bad behavior. When they begin to suggest a culture of privilege and entitlement, officials must be reminded of whom they’re serving.

The incidents are becoming too frequent to ignore. The latest is an ethics complaint leveled at the former president of the Indiana Board of Pharmacy, who seemingly used his position to advance his employer’s financial interests. Walgreens’ redesign of its pharmacy departments is raising questions about patient privacy and safety elsewhere but won unanimous approval from the Indiana board.

Email correspondence obtained by watchdog groups shows that William J. Cover, then the board president, connected state regulators with Walgreens officials in gaining approval of the controversial redesign for its Indiana stores. The emails suggest that Cover, who was Walgreens’ manager of pharmacy affairs, was working to influence his fellow board members before the project was made public.

The project was approved 6-0, with Cover citing his employment with Walgreens in abstaining.

It’s the same public-private disconnect displayed by Rep. P. Eric Turner in abstaining from votes on a measure that would clearly have harmed his son’s nursing home development business. Reports are that Turner aggressively lobbied against the bill in a private caucus session, accusing his GOP colleagues of betraying free-market principles in supporting a development moratorium.

The incidents coincide with a Court of Appeals hearing on an ethics case involving the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission. The office of the Indiana attorney general is appealing a decision to dismiss charges against David Lott Hardy, the former IURC chief accused of improper communications with Duke Energy officials over a proposed power plant in southern Indiana.

Then there is Tony Bennett, former state superintendent of public instruction, who goes before the state ethics commission next month. He is accused of using his state office for campaign work.

“It seems to me there is a culture of cronyism that is really raring its ugly head,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana. “A lot of it is attitude: ‘I get elected – not to serve the public’s interest but to buddy up to a lot of well-connected people, so if I don’t like this anymore I can take a high-paying job with them or become a lobbyist.’ This concept of public service is lost on a lot of people.”

Vaughn said lawmakers have not done a good job of policing themselves.

“We need just a handful of people in the Statehouse to stand up and say, ‘I’m tired of having my reputation sullied,’ ” she said. “But the best way to get people to not like you is to talk about the way things really work at the Statehouse.”

Vaughn said she is not optimistic anything will change. Both Republicans and Democrats protect each other in concealing conflicts of interest, she said. “But the institution gets damaged. Somebody has got to care more about the institution than their personal interests.”

Vaughn suggests stronger laws. Financial disclosure requirements for legislators “don’t ask the questions that get to the heart of what matters.” A list of registered lobbyists wasn’t available until halfway through the session, she said, because the lobby registration commission isn’t adequately staffed.

Within the executive branch, the investigations and rulings issued since an inspector general was appointed in 2005 seem to have focused more on low-level state workers than on high-ranking officials and well-connected appointees who appear to profit from government.

“It seems like we would be better served and could do this in a more holistic way if we had a sort of super-agency to oversee finance, ethics – clearly it is a problem to have lawmakers policing themselves. That type of peer review typically doesn’t work well and clearly doesn’t work well here,” Vaughn said. “We need to have an agency in state government that would really have a broad purview in this area.”

Decent lawmakers ignore blatant ethical violations at their own peril. If they don’t begin to clear the foul air emanating from state government, their reputations suffer along with the institution.