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Ethics on cruise control in state government

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Ethics on cruise control in state government

Dec 11, 2023 | 7:00 am ET
By Julia Vaughn
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Ethics on cruise control in state government
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Latest casino charges show room for improvement on ethics. (Getty Images)

Ever been driving down the highway on cruise control when you’re suddenly forced to take back control of the car to avoid a collision? From my vantage point, that’s the crossroads the General Assembly has arrived at after former state representative Sean Eberhart pleaded guilty to corruption charges for his role in 2019 legislation benefiting Spectacle Entertainment gambling interests.  

The legislature has several roads they can take. They can ignore the situation, as they did when former state representative turned lobbyist/casino executive John Keeler and former state senator Brent Waltz went to prison for playing fast and loose with campaign finance laws involving casino money. It will be difficult though to sweep this latest scandal under the rug if additional lobbyists and other legislators get snared in the Eberhart/Spectacle scandal.  

Or, the General Assembly can respond as they did after the Eric Turner scandal; the one where a high-ranking member of the House Republican leadership resigned after it was revealed he used his insider status to manipulate nursing home legislation in which he had a direct interest. After that scandal, the legislature nibbled around the edges of reform, making modest changes to legislative financial disclosure requirements but refusing to even consider the more comprehensive reforms needed to protect the public trust from duplicitous lawmakers using public service for private gain.  

I’m not suggesting the General Assembly rush forward with a narrowly tailored set of reforms aimed solely at better policing gambling interests in Indiana. Clearly the anti-corruption guardrails that the legislature put in place for that industry decades ago need to be re-visited, but they are not the only corporate interests who should be closely watched. Any state-regulated entity has motivation to engage in corrupt practices when the stakes are high enough and particularly when there’s little chance of getting caught.

Wider discussion

This scandal should be the one that starts an in-depth discussion about lobbying reform and legislative ethics and should begin with an acknowledgment that the current regulatory process is inadequate and dysfunctional. That should be obvious to everyone given that Keeler, Waltz and Eberhart weren’t even on the radar of the key state agencies charged with protecting elections and the legislative process from corruption. I’m thankful that the FBI is on the beat, but they could use some help.       

The Indiana Lobby Registration Commission (ILRC), the state agency charged with regulating lobbyists was ironically created on the fly by lawmakers back in the early-1990s when they feared then Secretary of State Joe Hogsett was going to force lobbyists to disclose more of their spending. Both Republicans and Democrats supported the effort to take regulation of lobbying away from the Secretary of State’s office and give it to a four-member group that is appointed by the legislative leadership.  

So that’s the first problem when it comes to regulating lobbyists. The job falls to people with the unenviable task of serving two masters; lawmakers who hate to air their dirty laundry in the open and the public interest. While I have great respect for those who serve on the ILRC, it’s a dead end if we want real regulation and enforcement of tougher laws.                              

Lobbying, campaign finance and legislative ethics regulation should be delegated to a larger and more diverse group composed of citizens who have not served in the legislature or worked as a lobbyist or legislative staffer with the appointing body. It makes sense to combine oversight over all these activities to one agency, particularly given that lobbyists play a major role in financing Indiana political campaigns. And, we must have an agency that is independent of those it is charged with regulating.   

Additionally, this agency needs enough resources to effectively regulate the hundreds of millions of dollars that flow from lobbying interests to political campaigns and legislators every year. Currently, the Lobby Commission has three staff charged with keeping tabs on more than a thousand lobbyists who spent more than $20 million during the first half of this year.  

Even if they had the staff and money to conduct real investigations, current law doesn’t give state regulators enough authority and requires too much secrecy during and after investigations are completed. 

We can expect more ethical pileups on the road ahead if the General Assembly won’t get off cruise control and slowly and deliberatively rebuild the way they and lobbyists are regulated.         

                 

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