Walk the Statehouse corridors when the General Assembly is in session and among the most common sights is the presence of former lawmakers and legislative staffers, now working as paid lobbyists. They fill the halls outside the House and Senate chambers, looking for help from lawmakers with whom they once served. The lobbying industry spends millions to shape public policy; the state’s casino industry alone spent at least $5.8 million to lobby 150 lawmakers over the past five years at the same time it repeatedly sought legislative changes that would save the industry far more money. High-ranking operatives in both major political parties also work as Statehouse lobbyists, seeking to influence the same members they help get elected. And many lawmakers, like Holdman, don’t shy from participating in debates over bills despite having close ties to the businesses or industries affected by the legislation.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the culture of coziness is that it is often not a secret -- it’s tolerated and even applauded . . .Tully won't get any arguments with me over the problem we have with too many of our elected officials becoming way too cozy with the people who lobby them on behalf of special interest groups and some lawmakers inclination towards engaging in self-dealing. The problem I suspect Tully won't write about, however, is the coziness with which too many of his fellow journalists have with lobbyists and special interest groups. Tully's editors allowed one of its regular guest columnists, ex-radio talk show host Abdul Hakim-Shabazz, to reprise his column with one titled, "Why Matt Tully is wrong about the General Assembly," in which Shabazz suggests that the only reason conflicts of interest exist at the State House is because our state lawmakers are part-time, unlike the Illinois General Assembly where lawmakers are paid to work full-time and dozens have still been sent to the clink over the past several decades:
Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is what happens when you have a part-time, citizen legislature. Unless you are willing to go to a system that consists of public funding of political campaigns and full-time elected officials, this is what you are going to get . . .
But there is another point here that I think some people miss. This is called democracy and individuals have the right to petition their government to address their grievances. I have no problem with like-minded people coming together to speak in one voice to influence their elected officials.
Now before you accuse me of using this space to defend the current political system in Indiana, I will save you the trouble and do it for you. Because I am doing more than defending the system. I am defending democracy. And to save you the social media posts I am not condoning situations that are for all intents and purposes “pay to play.” That is illegal and I don’t condone crime. However, unless you are willing to go to a system of total public funding for all political campaigns, the next best thing is full-disclosure so that voters can know who is hosting events and dinners for lawmakers, and then they can make the decision as to whether they want their elected officials to engage in that type of behavior. Democracy has never been pretty and it always has been and will be full of conflicts. The trick is how we deal with them.Shabazz makes some silly analogies for conflicts of interest by lawmakers, such as voting for property tax caps as property owners, but that's an over-generalization of convenience to the larger point Tully was trying to make about how some lawmakers go out of their way to engage in self-dealing through their legislative actions, such as a state senator who earns his living as a consultant to the banking industry in his day job while chairing the Financial Institutions Committee and sponsoring legislation to reduce taxes on banks.
Now, if I were Shabazz I wouldn't want to talk about conflicts of interest either. You may recall the cozy relationship he had as a radio talk show host with a political action committee run by one of his closest friends, who also served as campaign manager for former City-County Councilor Lincoln Plowman, who is now doing time in a federal prison for accepting a $5,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent. Plowman, of course, worked closely with Shabazz and the political action committee run by is friend that fought passage of a smoking ban ordinance in Indianapolis. The political action committee made some peculiar ad buys on Shabazz' radio talk show, which was one of the lowest rated shows in the Indianapolis market before it was canceled by WXNT.
About the same time Shabazz penned his article reprising Tully for his column attempting to shine light on State House conflicts of interest, he penned a pro-gaming column for the the State House File titled, "Indiana needs to go all in on gaming." Here's a little of what he had to say:
Gov. Mike Pence says he doesn’t want to expand gaming in the state, but I need to remind my good friend and his staff that Indiana is already in – and it’s time to go all in . . .
Indiana is already facing increasing competition from Ohio and Illinois. Last week, the Kentucky Lottery Board approved bringing Keno (it’s like bingo on steroids) and an Internet-based lottery to the state.
Michigan’s casino industry is struggling and there’s a push to expand gaming in Missouri. So with Indiana’s neighbors looking to increase their gaming revenue, Indiana needs to ante up.
What exactly does that mean?
Well for one thing just go ahead and put live dealers at tables at horse track casinos instead of electronic machines. I can assure you a lot of people are a lot more likely to stick around the poker table with a very handsome or attractive dealer working than some machine.Well, it just so happens that there are gaming lobbyists who are lobbying the state lawmakers to turn the racinos at the state's two horse race tracks into full-blown casinos with table games. Centaur opened the racino at Hoosier Park a few years back after acquiring a gaming license from the Indiana Gaming Commission for $250 million. Centaur's Rod Ratcliff convinced his old buddy Steve Hilbert of former Conseco infamy to invest $200 million from a large investment fund owned by hardward king John Menard with which Hilbert had been entrusted with managing and investing. Hilbert and Ratcliff had worked together to convince state gaming regulators to award a riverboat license in Lawrenceburg to Argosy, a company in which both had invested. One of Argosy's founders, William Cellini of Springfield, Illinois, is currently doing time in the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute. He was convicted, along with former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, for shaking down a financial investment firm for a share of Illinois teachers' pension funds. A couple of years after Hilbert sank Menard's $200 million into Hoosier Park's racino in Anderson, the company filed for bankruptcy and Menard lost his entire investment. Centaur later emerged from bankruptcy, and in January, the gaming company won the approval of Indiana gaming regulators to acquire the state's only other racino license for Indiana Grand Casino in Shelbyville. I don't see what Ratcliff and Hilbert did with Menard's money to be all that much different than what Tim Durham did with the more than $200 million he pilfered from the investors in Fair Finance, but that's John Menard's problem.
So what does this all have to do with Shabazz? It turns out that Shabazz, who is a member of the Columbia Club, a favorite stomping ground for lobbyists to wine and dine Indiana lawmakers, is a candidate for the club's board of directors. And who would be publicly backing Shabazz' campaign for the board? That would be Rod Ratcliff, who penned the following letter of support on behalf of the election of Shabazz and his fellow board candidates:
Friends and Colleagues,
As you all know, on April 11th we will be selecting new members to the Columbia Club Board of Directors. The Columbia Club has become a place for all of us to enjoy each other's company and create the relationships that we have today. I think we all understand in times like we are in today, when financially we are finding more and more people who are struggling, we need outstanding leadership for a prestigious club such as this.
That is why I am asking you all to vote for Bruce Stauffer, Abdul-Hakim Shabazz and Joe Ferrara. With their leadership and guidance, there is no doubt in my mind the Columbia Club will continue to flourish, and remain the most prestigious club in Downtown Indianapolis!
The voting process will take two very important steps on your part. First, you must request an absentee ballot from the Columbia Club. I have made this step that much easier for you, as the request is attached to this e-mail. Once you have filled out the form, you can return the form in person to the Columbia Club, mail in the form, or fax the completed form to the number included on the request form. You CANNOT e-mail the completed form as an attachment! A short response confirming your interest in the absentee ballot process would be greatly appreciated! Once you receive your absentee ballot you will have until April 11th at noon to vote! I will continue to remind you, and e-mail you as we get closer to the election deadline.
Once again, the Columbia Club continues to play an important part in all of our work and social lives. We all continue to want what is best for the club moving forward, and I believe with the leadership of these three individuals the Columbia Club will be in good hands for years to come.
Rod RatcliffThere may well be a contagion of back-scratching taking place over at the State House between lawmakers and lobbyists, but it's also infecting the journalists covering the State House. I hope that point isn't missed by Tully and his colleagues in the media as well, but I won't hold my breath. The non-stop propaganda being put out by the local news media in support of the mass transit legislative initiative is directly tied to more than $1 million in media ad buys being made by the proponents through the use of a grant from the Federal Transit Authority. Is that any different than lawmakers authoring and supporting legislation pushed by their campaign contributors?