on the straight and narrow

By Glenda Winders  //  Photography by Stacy Able
Lori Torres keeps her eye on Indiana’s government

Corruption in government and distrust on the part of citizens have been issues pretty much ever since government began. But Hoosiers can rest easy: They have an advocate in Lori Torres, the state’s inspector general, whose sole mission is to make sure the trust Indiana residents have in their state officials is justified and maintained.

“We want the public to be confident in the administration that’s there,” she says. “I’d like for people to know state government is ethical and honest and people aren’t in it for their self-interest but for the public interest.”

The people she investigates are elected officials, state employees and people who do business with the government. The cases with which she deals range from minor ethical dilemmas to full-on crimes. Take, for example, the state road worker who sold drill bits that had been discarded at his job site, or the supervisor who had an inappropriate relationship with one of his subordinates, or the employee who took a second job without permission or the woman who embezzled money.

“Public employees work under a whole different set of standards and rules,” Torres says. “Those drill bits were headed for the scrap pile anyway, but it’s a slippery slope. Maybe later he would decide to scrap something that shouldn’t be scrapped.”

Her job doesn’t often require her to be in the courtroom, but she can be appointed a special deputy prosecuting attorney, and in that role she prosecuted the aforementioned embezzler. Still, she says, she hesitates to call any of the offenders “bad.”

“Most white-collar people who take money think they’re going to pay it back; they’re just in a bind,” she says. “And in some of the nepotism cases, the people involved just didn’t know. In a small town, if your dad works in corrections and they need good corrections people, it doesn’t seem weird to you that you work in corrections, too. But we have a policy that you can’t be in a relative’s direct line of supervision.”

The irregularities come to her attention in a variety of ways, most from tips on a hotline but others from the media and from the State Board of Accounts, which discovers financial improprieties when it does audits. Then she and her staff, which consists of five attorneys, five investigators who are former Indiana State Police detectives and two support people, must first figure out if the complaint is legitimate or just a grudge on the part of a disgruntled worker. She says guilty parties, such as the embezzler, usually confess to the investigators once they are found out.

“Lying and cheating are a weight on people,” she says. “There is some relief from the tension and anxiety and pressure by just saying, ‘I did it.’”

Much of Torres’ time is spent trying to prevent such misdeeds before they happen. In 2019 she wrote some 320 opinions about ethical matters.

“Some people use the expression ‘Ask for forgiveness instead of permission,’ but we prefer that you ask for permission,” she says. “We have literally hundreds of state employees who ask, ‘Can I take this job?’ ‘Can I take this gift?’ ‘My wife works here, but we have a contract with them. Can we go to the Christmas party? Is that a conflict of interest?’”

In a hurry

Torres says she knew from the time she was a small child that she wanted to be an attorney.

“I like to read, I like to write, I like to talk, I like to get into other people’s stories,” she says. “Maybe that’s where it came from.”

A lifelong Johnson County resident from Greenwood, she met her future husband, Marcos, who was born and raised in Whiteland, while she was still in high school and both of them were working at her parents’ landscaping business. She wrote to him while she was an exchange student in Mexico (“I thought he was so interesting,” she says) and came back able to speak to his parents in their native language.

The couple didn’t begin dating until she was a student at Indiana University. She graduated in three years, turned 21 that June, and they married two weeks later. That August she began her studies at what was then the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis, and 18 months later their first child was born, followed by a second 16 months later.

“We were on the fast track,” she says. “It wasn’t so smart, but it worked out for us.”

She joined a law firm in Franklin with Stephen Huddleston, whom she credits with being a friend, mentor and big supporter and who gave her the opportunity to blend her family life and career. He and his wife, Sandi, were politically active, and that sparked her interest in politics.

“I have had the pleasure of knowing Lori for the last 30-plus years, both as fellow attorney and close friend,” Huddleston says. “She is recognized in the community as an outstanding attorney who has consistently demonstrated a high degree of professional and ethical performance. The recent two governors of Indiana have agreed by trusting her with the responsibilities with appointment of Indiana’s commissioner of labor and inspector general. Her record of success has made her one of the top lawyers in Indiana.”

Finding her way

But she says that like her dad, she had a sense of wanting to own something of her own. She became a self-employed partner with a firm in Greenwood, where she was also a public defender, and that’s where she was when former Gov. Mitch Daniels tapped her to be the commissioner of the Department of Labor.

When Daniels’ second term ended, she thought her career in government was over, so she joined Ice Miller LLP, the noted Indy-based law firm. Before long, however, the Indiana Department of Transportation asked her to be its general counsel.

“I loved working at INDOT,” she says, “3,500 people all building a road, all going to do the same thing. I loved its purpose.”

Then after only a couple of years there Gov. Eric Holcomb asked her to take the job she has now.

“Lori brings the integrity and leadership we need in an inspector general,” Holcomb says. “Her work helps to ensure that Indiana gives Hoosiers the great government service they deserve.”

When her work as inspector general is finished, she isn’t sure what will come next, but she hasn’t ruled out running for public office again. She ran for prosecutor last year, losing by only six votes.

“As you get older you want to make sure you’re doing things that are meaningful and that you have some balance in your life,” she says.

The home and the world

Meanwhile, Marcos, now a real estate broker, has moved his office to the big yellow farmhouse where the family has lived for 32 years. By working at home he is able to keep the household running and to respond to the needs of their extended family. Son Nick, his wife, Natalie, and their four children, daughter Cecilia, her husband, Jordan, and their two children, and Lori’s parents all live in the area, as do most of the six siblings Lori and Marcos have between them.

“I’m busy, but I’m flexible,” he says. “I’m going to support her in whatever she wants to do, and if that means I pick up the slack here, that’s what I do. It’s like when I was working a bunch, and she picked up the slack. We support each other. I can put in a load of laundry and keep working. If her flowers need water, I can give them a drink.”

Lori puts it this way: “Marcos runs the entire show.”

Her commitment to making her state a good place to live goes beyond her work to keep Indiana government squeaky clean. She’s involved with 100 Women Who Care, which donates money to nonprofits, as well as with the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, which offers low-cost legal advice. When she began there, she worked with Spanish-speaking people. Now that she’s busier she serves on the board. She’s also on the board of the Thomas More Society, a group of Catholic attorneys and judges; the 4-H Foundation; and Girls Inc., as well as serving on corrections, zoning and planning committees.

The Torreses are members of Our Lady of Greenwood Catholic Church, and they say their faith is a big part of their lives. Another part is spending their free time together, and one of their passions is traveling. During a visit to Negril, Jamaica, in 2014 they came upon a reggae half-marathon, and Lori, who loves to run, vowed to come back the next year and compete. She did, and so did Marcos, who walked the 10K event because of hip replacements. This year their plans include a trip to Belgium — the home of Lori’s grandfather — and Italy. Other passions are hiking and gardening.

“I still have the landscaper’s blood in me,” Marcos says. “Come springtime I can’t wait to get out there.”

They also have chickens and a small egg business. Marcos says they are “wannabe farmers” who would like a bigger farm. But they haven’t found a large enough property that would let them remain near family, and that’s their No. 1 priority.

“We have deep roots in Johnson County,” Marcos says. “And now that they have been planted, they just seem to keep growing.”