Editorial: Corruption is the elephant in the Statehouse

The (Columbus) Republic

The Indiana General Assembly has a long, notorious tradition of corruption. Consider this century-old wisecrack from Kin Hubbard’s Abe Martin of Brown County:

“Now and then an innocent man is sent to the legislature.”

Now it’s not a stipulation that our lawmakers be crooked as a dog’s hind leg, but on the other foot, we are hardly shocked when we have examples like former Rep. Sean Eberhart, 57, R-Shelbyville. For 16 years, until redistricting after the 2020 census, Eberhart represented parts of Bartholomew, Hancock and Shelby counties.

In a Nov. 10 statement, the US Justice Department said Eberhart would plead guilty to “conspiring with others to solicit and receive the promise of future, lucrative employment with a gaming company in exchange for his support of legislation beneficial to the gaming company.”

That’s a lawyerly way of saying Eberhart took a bribe. He agreed to bend the law in favor of Spectacle Entertainment, saving the company $80 million in fees it would have been required to pay the state to transfer casino licenses. In return, he’d get a cushy job with Spectacle paying at least $350,000 a year.

If this was an isolated case, we might be more sympathetic. But this was not an isolated case. Year after year, lawmakers resign upon finding “greener” pastures. Their party fills the vacancy with another member of their own party. Everybody wins. Except the public.

We dare not paint all lawmakers with the broad brush of corruption. Many are honorable public servants. Yet we dare say, Eberhart just got caught.

So did former state Sen. Brent Waltz, R-Greenwood. Like Eberhart, Waltz was tempted by casino payouts. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison last August after taking more than $40,000 in illegal contributions from casino operator New Centaur LLC for his 2016 run for Congress.

Waltz got a 10-year sentence. Indiana Capital Chronicle reported that Eberhart could be sentenced to 37 to 46 months in federal prison.

These lawmakers’ gambling problems aside, we suspect corruption generally runs deeper than the criminal convictions we know about. Why? Because our lawmakers either cannot or will not police themselves.

The Senate Ethics Committee has not met since 2019. The House doesn’t even have an ethics committee. Such neglect of accountability corrodes public trust and creates an environment that fosters corruption.

Take the lack of consequences for Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, who earlier this year drove drunk, took out guardrails on I-65 at State Road 11, fled the scene then ditched his wrecked truck behind a business before being picked up by police. He cut a quick, favorable plea deal, avoiding a felony conviction and jail. The Republic later learned Lucas also had marijuana in his system at the time of his crash and had pleaded guilty in 1988 to a prior charge of operating while intoxicated.

What did House Speaker Todd Huston do after this? He put Lucas on the House Public Safety Committee.

Every Indiana legislator needs to pause for a moment and consider how these examples shape people’s perceptions of those creating laws in Indianapolis, and whether they are honoring their oath to serve the public’s interest rather than their own.

The (Columbus) Republic is a sister newspaper to the Daily Journal. Send comments to [email protected].