That scent in the air carries a hint of conflict of interest

(Bloomington) Herald-Times

One of the things the Indiana General Assembly should put on its agenda for 2017 is ethics reform.

Yes, the body passed an ethics reform law a year ago to try to clean up some messes involving its members. But based on what’s happened with one of our area legislators, there’s work left to do.

Republican Sen. Brent Steele of Bedford served this area for decades following a conservative agenda spiced with some common sense. His decision to sign on as executive director of the Vapor Association of Indiana as a post-legislative job isn’t the kind of spice/common sense we’re talking about.

Late in his last session before he did not run for re-election and retired from the Legislature, Steele voted for a bill that greatly reduced competition in the world of electronic smoking devices, called vaping. The bill allowed only a handful of Indiana companies to make and sell e-liquid that goes into the devices.

And now he’s working for them as executive director.

That smells funny in that the idea of ethics reform was to see that individuals didn’t use their public service for future private financial gain. And it would seem to contradict a legislative rule that says lawmakers cannot lobby their former colleagues for one year after leaving office.

Apparently, though, the rule doesn’t apply directly to Steele, because he says he won’t be doing any lobbying as executive directors typically do. Rather, the association will hire outside lobbyists for the first year Steele is in his new job.

That smells funny, too.

Rest assured there will be a lot of lobbying on this issue at the Statehouse during the session. Companies shut out of the vaping market in the state are expected to try to get the law changed, something the association represented by Steele will surely fight.

Steele doesn’t see the problem.

He told The Indianapolis Star there is no conflict and his job will be “to make sure the association is run professionally and that we continue to assure the public that we have a safe product out on the shelves.” He continued: “I’m not here to ensure protectionist turf for anybody.”

While this doesn’t rise to the level of the huge looming conflicts of President-elect Donald Trump, there is that wafting scent in the air. Just because something is technically legal doesn’t mean it isn’t ethically questionable.

The perception of impropriety can be as damaging as the reality. The Legislature needs to make sure its ethics rules address both effectively, and right now, they don’t.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association.