Editorial: Ethics Rules for Vermont: Start With Financial Disclosure

Does Vermont state government lack comprehensive ethics standards because none are needed, or because they are sorely needed?

That’s the question posed by an effort mounted by a group called Campaign for Vermont, which is pushing the Legislature to adopt tough ethics rules for statewide officeholders and legislators. The campaign is being headed, and bankrolled to the tune of $1 million, by retired Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman, who apparently has made the cause of government transparency and accountability his own.

Lisman’s program, boiled down to its essentials, calls for the establishment of a strict ethics code containing: a clearly defined way to deal with potential conflicts of interest; full financial disclosure for statewide public officials; restrictions on nepotism and patronage; closing the revolving door between public office and the private sector; and an independent, nonpartisan and quasi-judicial ethics commission to investigate possible violations and enforce the law.

The Campaign for Vermont notes that good government groups generally give Vermont low marks for its lack of conflict-of-interest laws and ethics enforcement, as well as such things as access to public information. It notes that the Better Government Association ranks the state 43rd in government integrity laws. On the other hand, Vermont state government generally enjoys a good reputation for integrity among the state’s residents. How does one account for the apparent contradiction?

One answer is to suppose that Vermont officeholders have a higher sense of ethical obligation than the run-of-the-mill politician, and need no legal strictures to keep them on the straight and narrow.

The organization’s answer is that Vermonters have confused accessibility with transparency and, perhaps, probity. Because residents often encounter their representatives in informal settings or on occasions such as Town Meeting, they come to believe that those officials necessarily are accountable to them.

And it is true that just because corrupt practices do not come to light frequently in Vermont, that does not mean that corruption does not exist. It could simply indicate that the tools needed to hold officials to high ethical standards are not at hand, either for the public or the press.

House Speaker Shap Smith has formed an informal legislative committee to look into the concerns expressed by good government groups, although as VtDigger.org reported last week, he apparently was none too happy that the Campaign for Vermont held a press conference to announce its proposals for reform before approaching relevant legislators whose support would be essential to a successful effort.

We hope that Smith will follow through. To our mind, financial disclosure is an obvious place to start. According to Lisman’s organization, Vermont is one of only three states in which public officials do not have to disclose their financial interests. The establishment of strict reporting requirements, independent auditing of disclosure forms and ready public access to them is an essential first step. Equally sensible is the proposal to establish a two-year waiting period before former public officials can take private-sector jobs whose duties include attempting to influence government decision-making. Precisely because Vermont is so small, cozy relationships between former legislators, or former top-level civil servants, and their one-time colleagues are fraught with the opportunity for mischief at the public expense.

If these reforms are enacted, perhaps all that will be proven is that Vermont’s reputation for clean politics is well-deserved. If so, that would be cause for celebration.