INDIANAPOLIS – When a legislative ethics panel meets this week to review the case of House Speaker Pro Tem Eric Turner, members could have trouble finding clear-cut answers, in large part because of the Indiana General Assembly’s status as a “citizen legislature.”
The House Ethics Committee is tasked with deciding whether Turner, a Cicero Republican, violated ethics rules when he lobbied against a proposed ban on the construction of new nursing homes during the final days of the 2014 session.
When House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, first asked the panel to review Turner’s actions, it appeared that Turner’s son – the president of nursing home developer Mainstreet Property Group – had the most to lose if the ban passed. But the Associated Press reported last week that Turner makes upward of a million dollars on each new nursing home project through his 38 percent ownership stake in Mainstreet Property Group.
The ban would have cost Turner millions in potential profits from planned nursing homes in Indiana.
For his part, Turner has said in press statements that he has done nothing wrong and acknowledged a stake in the nursing home business. Turner also recused himself from votes on the issue in public but spoke out against it in private meetings of the House Republican caucus.
Unlike a full-time legislature, such as the U.S. Congress, or the legislature of a larger state like New York, part-time, citizen legislatures are comprised of lawmakers who typically maintain careers outside politics. The two separate jobs – representing the public and working in private – can clash.
But supporters of the part-time model also point out that legislatures filled with farmers, bankers, teachers and numerous other professions, provide a diversity of viewpoints unobtainable in full-time legislatures, which are typically filled with lawyers.
When asked last week if he had any concerns about Turner’s efforts inside the private caucus meetings, House Ways and Means Chairman Tim Brown, R-Crawfordsville, referenced advice a former Democratic lawmaker once offered on the House floor.
“I remember a wise veteran legislator, Dale Grubb, one time got to the front of the microphone and said that if we were going to be restrictive of how people looked at this issue, we were going to devalue ourselves to become a full-time legislature,” Brown said. “So I think I follow the Dale Grubb advice that we need to have citizens of all walks and all aspects.”
The House ethics code itself provides somewhat conflicting guidance in Turner’s case. On one hand, it bars lawmakers from using their elected office for the direct benefit of themselves or their families. But it also tasks lawmakers with providing their “expertise” in an area during a debate.
Ed Feigenbaum, a veteran observer of Indiana politics, dissected the ethics troubles that are unique to part-time legislatures in a 2006 article for the Indiana Law Review. Lacking some clear-cut ethics laws, it’s even more important for lawmakers to be vigilant about ethical conduct and the limits they do place on themselves, he wrote.
But he said that has not often been the case inside the Statehouse.
“Lawmakers are often reluctant to be too comprehensive or demanding when the laws they draft apply to them, and Indiana’s ethics rules for legislators are briefer and less proscriptive than the code of ethics that Indiana’s lobbyists have drafted for themselves,” Feigenbaum wrote.
Lacking black-and-white guidelines on Turner’s actions, the members of the House Ethics Committee will have to examine shades of gray in deciding which conflicts of interest are acceptable and which ones go too far for a citizen legislature.