Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Is It Right?
Earlier this year, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education announced a search for a replacement to long-time commissioner Stan Jones. On April 22, prior to the end of the 2009 legislative session, the Commission released to the media a statement saying that a three-month long search had concluded that District 30 State Senator Teresa Lubbers should become the next commissioner. Attorney Jon Costas, Chairman of the Commission, headed up the search committee. Costas is a close ally of Gov. Mitch Daniels, who handpicked Costas as his choice for Attorney General at last year's state GOP convention. Greg Zoeller routed Costas at the convention despite the governor's backing.
At its May 8, 2009 meeting, the Commission formally voted to approve Lubbers as the new Commissioner for Higher Education. Typically, a person appointed to an executive branch position takes office upon his or her appointment. Not Sen. Lubbers. Instead, the Commission announced that Lubbers, who serves as the Assistant Majority Floor Leaders in the Senate, would continue to serve in the Senate until the conclusion of the special session called by the Governor to pass a state budget. Despite the fact that four candidates have announced their bid to replace her, no caucus has been called by the Indiana Republican Party because Lubbers has not resigned her seat.
While the Commission used the excuse of getting the special session out of the way, other political observers, including this one, thinks something else is at play here. It is no secret that party leaders are nudging committeepersons in Lubbers' district to support City-County Councilor Ryan Vaughn to take her place. Under state party rules, the county chairmen in Marion County and Hamilton County can appoint committeepersons to vacancies up to 30 days prior to the caucus, which will not be announced until Lubbers steps down. By holding on to her Senate seat, Lubbers is effectively buying time for party leaders to appoint new committeepersons who will back their choice to replace her.
Beyond party politics, there is a much more important conflict of interest posed by Lubbers' continued service in the Senate. Lubbers first sought the Higher Ed job months ago. As a state senator, she gets a voice and a vote on matters effecting the higher education community, including the very budget she will preside over once she assumes her duties. Ironically, Sen. Lubbers authored legislation this year that would subject former legislators to a one-year cooling off period before they can lobby the legislature. Her bill died in the Senate Rules Committee like many other lobbying reform measures introduced this year. News media reports have documented dozens of legislators, including leaders like Lubbers, who have entered the lobbying ranks almost immediately upon departing the legislature.
In her new job, one of her duties will be to lobby the Indiana General Assembly on matters affecting the Commission's budget and other substantive matters pertaining to higher education. Her legislative contacts no doubt gave her a leg up over other candidates, who have actually held substantive education-related jobs. Except for a brief two-year stint as a school teacher, Lubbers has no education-related work experience outside her legislative service. Lubbers has been able to act officially on these matters throughout the year with her full knowledge she was going to seek and eventually did win appointment to the state's top higher education position. She even sponsored legislation that impacted the Commission this year, which was subsequently signed into law by the Governor. Based on news reports, Lubbers is not shying away from participating in the state budget debate during the special session.
It seems to me that Sen. Lubbers had an obligation first to inform the Senate and the public that she was seeking the Higher Ed post as soon as she applied for the job earlier this year. It's possible she did this, but I can't find any news reports indicating this. News releases on her Senate website make no mention of her being a candidate for the position. Secondly, Lubbers should have refrained from participating in any matters that related to higher education. Finally, Lubbers should have resigned her Senate seat immediately upon the formal approval of her appointment by the Commission. None of these precautions seem to have been taken by Sen. Lubbers to avoid at least the appearance, if not the existence of an obvious conflict of interest.
It is disturbing that nobody in the legislature has raised concerns about Lubbers' handling of this matter. Even more disturbing has been the complete silence of the State House news media. As long as legislators remain free to use their legislative position to trade for jobs in the lobbying and public sector, public skepticism of the honesty and integrity of the legislature will continue to grow and rightfully so.
This is not the first time a question of ethics has been raised pertaining to the Lubbers' household. Her husband, Mark, held a six-figure communications contract with Gov. Mitch Daniels' office earlier in his administration. Mark invested in a start-up company, Strand Analytical Labs, a DNA testing facility, which later received a lucrative state contract from the Indiana State Police. That company was formerly run by former Marion Co. Prosecutor Scott Newman, who now serves as Indianapolis' Public Safety Director. Newman said he placed his holdings in a blind trust upon assuming his new job to avoid conflicts; the company also had a contract with Marion County. Sen. Lubbers actually co-sponsored legislation mandating DNA testing in certain circumstances, which had the potential of benefitting the company in which her husband invested financially.