INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Concerns are growing about potential ethics violations by wind companies and some county officials who approve their projects.
Thursday, a bill designed to address those issues is gaining support from state representative Heath VanNatter, the House’s vice chair for the Utilities and Energy Committee.
VanNatter, along with the rest of the summer study committee, heard testimony from people supporting and opposing wind energy, or at the very least, opposing shorter setbacks. The setback defines the distance from a wind turbine to a property line or building foundation.
One of those testifying was White County Commissioner Steve Burton, who leases his farmland for wind turbines. He testified about why he supports them and why he voted for a project he now benefits from, something VanNatter questioned him on multiple times.
“The state legislature, we’re not allowed to vote on conflict of interests and neither should local government officials,” said VanNatter.
He’s now supporting state representative Tom Saunders’ bill, which would give the state attorney general’s office a new power to investigate potential violations.
“Hopefully we can come to a resolution for next session and pass a bill that will protect the integrity of the institution,” said VanNatter.
In December 2016, an investigation first shed light on potential ethical violations by Apex Clean Energy. A then-employee texted commissioner Kim Cronk’s neighbor offering a job if she “delivered” a vote from Cronk.
Then, in April 2017, our investigation uncovered some Henry County officials failed to disclose conflicts of interest earlier this year.
In emails obtained by citizens and FOX59, Olene Veach, a planning commissioner who votes on wind issues, states she “might be interested” in leasing her farm for a turbine.
In response, a former county administrator tells her “Ed had to recuse on NextEra because he had a tentative agreement with them”.
Ed, in the email, refers to Ed Yanos, a county and planning commissioner for Henry County. A map submitted by NextEra to the county, shows his wife’s property as an alternate site for a turbine.
Several dozen people showed up at the statehouse to rally in support of the bill before the hearing.
They came from different counties across the state, voicing similar concerns that first fired up some Henry County residents.
“We have a county councilman that worked for a wind company,” said Andy Robertson of Clinton County. “We have several other individuals involved in the county government that are going to benefit by being leaseholders.”
But not everyone agrees with taking power to set standards or investigate ethical violation claims away from local officials.
“That needs to be handled, I think on a local basis and not a one-size-fits-all heavy hand from the state down to the counties,” said Gregg Townsend, the Tipton County auditor. “Don’t punish the whole class because someone’s throwing spitwads in the back of one corner.”
VanNatter says he’ll join Saunders in fighting to figure out a solution next legislative session. He also wants to help work through potential economic and development concerns the current bill also aims to address.