News and Tribune

April 8, 2014

HAYDEN: House judiciary chair faces a no-win task

By MAUREEN HAYDEN
Indiana columnist

INDIANAPOLIS — Steering lawmakers through a rewrite of the state’s criminal code won House Judiciary Chairman Greg Steuerwald bipartisan accolades this year.

His colleagues appreciated how the even-tempered attorney from Hendricks County used his legal expertise and inclination toward consensus to deliver legislation that makes punishment more fitting of the crime.

It was an unenviable task: Police, prosecutors and public defenders were pulling on him, as were two chambers of politicians terrified of being seen as “soft on crime.”

His next act may be more difficult and yield less praise.

On Thursday, April 10, Steuerwald will preside over a public meeting of the House Ethics Committee to consider allegations that a high-ranking legislator in his own party privately killed a bill to help his family’s business.

House Speaker Pro Tem Eric Turner, R-Cicero, stands accused of lobbying members in the final hours of the 2014 session to vote against a bill that would have put a moratorium on new nursing home construction. The ban would have hurt his family’s expanding nursing home business.

The alleged arm-twisting is said to have taken place behind closed doors, during Republican House caucus meetings deemed private by law and considered highly confidential by their participants.

Many factors complicate Steuerwald’s assignment: The allegations were lodged by unhappy GOP lawmakers who spoke to Associated Press reporter Tom LoBianco on the condition on anonymity. Those lawmakers are not expected to show up at the hearing for fear of being ostracized for violating the “gentlemen’s agreement” of zipped lips on caucus business.

Steuerwald has no subpoena power, and Turner isn’t expected to show up, either, though he’s vehemently denied that he broke ethics rules. In a statement to the press, Turner pointed out that he didn’t cast any votes on the legislation, in committee or on the House floor. And he’s been upfront about his family’s investments.

And, though Steuerwald has been chair of the House Ethics Committee for three years, he has no experience with an ethics probe. That’s because there hasn’t been a single complaint assigned to his committee during his tenure. The last big allegation was in 1997, when the panel reprimanded two lawmakers who’d essentially failed to fully disclose their finances.

Adding to the pressure is the fact that Turner, a prolific fundraiser for House Republican Campaign Committee, is facing his first primary challenger in years this May.

If Steuerwald acts aggressively, he risks violating the revered caucus confidentiality. If he’s seen as giving Turner a pass, he risks the public appearance that he’s covering up.

“He’s in a truly impossible position,” said Julia Vaughn, Indiana head of the government watchdog group, Common Cause, and a critic of Indiana’s lax legislative ethics rules.

“It’s what happens when you leave it up to legislators to police their own.”

Steuerwald is painfully aware of his position. Since the Turner story hit the headlines, he’s been questioned by reporters and constituents about how he’ll proceed.

He’s declined to discuss the details much. But he has said repeatedly that the Ethics Committee is made up of three Republicans and three Democrats. He describes the ranking Democrat, Rep. Clyde Kersey of Terre Haute, as his “co-chairman.”

“The public needs to know this is a bipartisan committee,” he said.

Little may come out of that split committee when it meets Thursday. But the issue isn’t over.

Steuerwald plans to reconvene this summer to look at rules covering the financial disclosure requirements for legislators. The committee could decide that both the rules and their enforcement need to be expanded.

“My job,” said Steuerwald, “is to protect the integrity of the institution.”

— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden