Same old, same old.
The headline on a recent editorial from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette pretty well sums it up– State Sinks Further into Ethics Morass.
The editorial asked the 64-Thousand-Dollar question: “How low will the bar have to slip before Indiana lawmakers finally demand tougher ethics laws?”
Troy Woodruff and Inspector General David Thomas have lowered it another notch. Woodruff, the former chief of staff for the Indiana Department of Transportation, won’t face criminal or civil charges related to state land deals benefiting his own family members, thanks to a ruling from Thomas.
The inspector general simply concluded Woodruff’s conduct “gives rise to the appearance of impropriety” and “diminishes public trust.”
Woodruff’s “appearance of impropriety” (it appeared improper because it was improper) is just the latest in a sorry string of episodes in which Indiana elected and appointed officials have abused the public trust, using their positions to enrich themselves or their families.
A couple of years ago, it was Eric Turner, twisting arms behind the scenes to protect his family’s lucrative nursing home business; more recently, an employee of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles negotiated a cushy contract between the Bureau and a private vendor, and then–what a coincidence!–left the BMV for a high-level job with that vendor. (After the BMV story became front-page news, Governor Pence cancelled the contract and ordered an “ethics investigation” of the transaction. I think this is what is meant by “locking the barn door after the horse is stolen…”)
Rep. Robert Behning, who chairs the House Education Committee, formed an education lobbying company. The House Ethics Committee is “looking into” whether or not he violated the rules.
Even Indiana’s Inspector General– who seems more interested in downplaying and minimizing ethics violations than punishing them– found former Secretary of Education Tony Bennett in violation of the state ethics code.
In Woodruff’s case, as the Journal Gazette reported,
After Woodruff’s legislative defeat, he and his wife both were awarded state jobs. His mother also was hired by INDOT. His wife remains a highway department employee; Troy Woodruff left last week to go into business for himself – taking with him with years of taxpayer-supported job-training and invaluable state connections.
Statehouse observers have long whispered that the violations that get reported are just the tip of the iceberg–that backscratching and conflicts of interest are widely accepted as the way business is done in Indiana government. They note that with the exodus of experienced statehouse reporters and the diminished news coverage of state government, only the most rash and egregious behavior ever gets reported.
I’ll give the last word to the Journal Gazette.
Lawmakers ignore the repeated absolution of ethical lapses at their own risk. Voters can’t continue to overlook conflicts allowing lawmakers’ friends and allies to grow richer even as their own communities suffer from dwindling state support. They eventually will cry foul over the Statehouse’s low ethical threshold.