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EDITORIAL

It's time for state to take ethics more seriously

Wednesday, August 6, 2014 - 12:01 am

Officials are getting by with too much questionable behavior.

It has become more than obvious that Indiana’s ethics law is way too lax, riddled with gaps that must be closed. In three highly publicized cases, high-ranking state officials have engaged in questionable practices that probably would have probably gotten them into serious trouble in the private sector. But in two of the cases, it was blandly stated that “no state law was violated,” and the officials went on their merry way.

Troy Woodruff’s family sold nearly three acres of prime land to the state near an Indiana highway project he oversaw as a top state transportation official. House Speaker Pro Tem Eric Turner, whose family owns a nursing home business, lobbied to beat back legislation that would have barred construction of new facilities of the kind his family builds.

The only official who paid any price at all was former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, who was fined $5,000 for using state resources in his 2012 election campaign. And even he could have avoided the fine if he had rewritten his agency’s policy to allow for moderate campaigning with state resources.

Even though Woodruff and Turner didn’t break the law, says Indiana Inspector General David Thomas, there is a problem when officials “go right up to the line” that separates ethical behavior from illegal activity the “dance away from the line.”

No kidding. A bad ethics policy is worse than no policy at all. Every time an official commits obviously questionable behavior – such as unfairly profiting from public policy – it reinforces the public perception that officials live by a different set of rules than the rest of us are governed by. How, we are likely to wonder, can we expect a fair shake from the Good Old Boys club?

Woodruff and Turner made the problem even worse by being so secretive. Saying nothing about their conflicts of interest until they were called on it created the clear impression that they knew what they were doing was wrong so were keeping quiet about it.

The state needs to clean up its ethics act, and sooner rather than later. The General Assembly needs to look into its internal policies as well, and the Pence administration needs to tighten up executive agency policies. It’s hard enough governing without a cynical public willing to believe the worst about officials’ motives.