Taking a step forward on ethics in Indiana

South Bend Tribune

The ethics reform package that appears headed for passage this session of the General Assembly represents a badly needed step forward for Indiana.

A recent disclosure from two of the biggest champions of House Bill 1002 offers a reminder of just how far the state has to go on the issue.

The high-profile scandals of last year involving lawmakers and officials helped to finally turn the tide in the push for stronger ethics rules. House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, has led the reform effort during the current session. The result is HB 1002, which Bosma says is intended “to increase transparency and safeguard the public trust.”

The requirements for disclosure offer a great deal more transparency than before. For example, under the legislation, lawmakers would have to list family members — including aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandparents and grandchildren — who are lobbyists. They would also have to disclose business and financial interests of parents, spouses and children.

The talk of stronger disclosure rules already had led a couple of House members to drop personal business pursuits or legislation after questions about conflicts of interest arose.

And last week, Bosma and House Ethics chairman Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Danville, were criticized for revealing their ties to an $82 million stadium after the House voted in favor of it. Neither participated in the vote, and Bosma says he handled the matter correctly, on advice from legal counsel. That the lawmakers acted as they did even as they were pushing for stronger disclosure rules is troubling, to say the least.

Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, told the Indianapolis Star that in order to be meaningful to the process, disclosures have to be timely. A more transparent move would have had Bosma and Steuerwald revealing their financial relationships before a vote took place, not after it. And, Vaughn notes, any disclosures legislators make to the ethics committee should be made public — a detail that’s not in HB 1002.

Common Cause Indiana, which has been pushing for ethics reform for years, has praised the legislation — up to a certain point. The group points out HB 1002’s lack of a requirement for a strong enforcement process.

As Vaughn said in a recent phone interview, you can have the best disclosure system in the world, but it means little if the enforcement piece is lacking. The current system, which asks legislators to sit in judgment of their peers, would remain in place.

To introduce a measure of independence in the process, Common Cause would like to see the legislation changed in the Senate to include outsiders — who would have no interest in protecting legislators and every interest in protecting the public. The group suggests that the speaker and minority leader provide two members to the ethics committee: One Democrat, one Republican.

Distributed by the Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com