Earlier this session, a senator sat on a bench and casually asked me — while waving the yellow statement of economic interest form in his hand — does anyone even read these?

The answer is yes. Though not enough.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle team reviewed all 150 forms which are usually six pages but sometimes have addendums, as well.

By doing this, we were able to glean a new trend that at least 15 sitting legislators are operating consulting gigs on the side. This leads to worry that lawmakers are trading on their position of power and knowledge for paid clients, all of which is shrouded in secrecy.

To be fair, conflict of interest in a part-time legislature is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean leaders and citizens should just throw their hands up in the air and give up.

We should demand transparency. We should demand accountability. And we are getting only some of that right now.

On one hand, you don’t want a bunch of people writing laws for industries or sectors they have no expertise or even working knowledge of. So, it makes sense to have bankers sit on financial institutions committees and insurers on insurance committees and lawyers on judiciary committees.

Their expertise does usually mean a better bill is crafted because they understand the nuance.

Conflicts arise

Any legislator can have a conflict of interest, from those running a farm to an insurance company to a nursing home. But at least citizens and colleagues can see explicitly on their disclosures what businesses that they own or have an interest in.

Many of the consultancies listed are nebulous at best. There is no explanation of what topic or area of expertise the lawmaker is consulting on. There are no public websites for the business. These are just private deals with unknown people involving mystery amounts of money.

Legislators could be pushing — or blocking — measures based on client needs and no one would know. Currently, the self-policing system leaves everything up to the lawmaker to proactively seek guidance from staff or even a ruling from the chamber’s ethics committee.

I would trust the majority of members to do so. But every year, there seem to be examples of conflict that surface that could have been avoided.

And having covered the General Assembly for more than 20 years, I can tell you it is a rarity for someone to recuse themselves from a vote on the floor – or even in committee.

There are some easy ways to improve the system and protect everyone involved, including the taxpayers. Here are my suggestions:

  • Lawmakers should have to specify the type of consulting they do.
  • Those with consulting businesses should list their clients. This is a controversial proposal but is worth it to maintain trust in the legislature. Lawyers have similar concerns, but they are bound by robust professional conduct rules that don’t apply to legislators who are consulting.
  • List how much you are being paid for the consulting. This doesn’t have to be per client, but at least an overall amount you are earning from the work or a general rate per hour.

Lastly, I have a few ideas that should be added to the form for all legislators — not just consultancies.

  • Each year, list when you recused yourself on bills and votes. This gives everyone an idea of your conflicts and that you are being proactive.
  • Random ethics audits. Pick 10 a year and have an outside party go through to see if anyone is pushing, voting or blocking bills that directly impact them or their immediate families. This would provide accountability rather than just filing the form away never to see the light of day.

I think a part-time legislature is important to maintain. It means lawmakers have a more direct connection to their districts and constituents. But that doesn’t mean more can’t be done to ensure the General Assembly is acting ethically.

© Indiana Capital Chronicle, 2023 The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to giving Hoosiers a comprehensive look inside state government, policy and elections. The site combines daily coverage with in-depth scrutiny, political awareness and insightful commentary.