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.”
An Indianapolis Star investigation in early 2013 found that Woodruff and his family members were among the property owners whose land was bought by INDOT for the Interstate 69 project in southwest Indiana. The state paid$7 million for 32 parcels of property appraised at less than half that amount.
Woodruff, along with his father and brother, sold a three-acre field to the state and the rest of the land to an uncle and cousins. The deals gave the family an 83 percent return on investment, according to the Star.
Indiana’s conflict-of-interest law states that a public servant can be charged with a felony if he or she “knowingly or intentionally has a pecuniary interest in or derives a profit from a contract or purchase connected with an action by the governmental entity served by the pubic servant.”
State law doesn’t forbid public servants to have such a conflict, only to disclose in writing any dealing with their agency totaling more than $250 and to seek clearance from the state. Thomas ruled the law didn’t apply to Woodruff because his land deal involved a possible eminent domain case and, as such, was not a typical contract.
The inspector general investigated the land purchase in 2010, clearing the former GOP lawmaker of wrongdoing, although other legal observers argued his conclusion was flat-out wrong.
The inspector general also dismissed claims involving Woodruff in 2005. Woodruff was elected to the General Assembly in 2004, promising his southwestern Indiana constituents that he would not support daylight-saving time.
Five months after he was elected, the former congressional aide cast the deciding vote for a daylight-saving time bill.His support for one of Gov. Mitch Daniels’ chief legislative priorities did not go unrewarded.
At a Woodruff re-election event in 2006, supporters paid $25 to pose for pictures with the governor and to tour RV1, the $175,000 vehicle on loan to the state.
The Indiana Democratic Party issued an ethics complaint, and a deputy inspector general initially found use of the RV for a campaign fundraiser was prohibited. Thomas later reversed the ruling.
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.
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.