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Vt. May Get Ethics Commission

Thursday, June 04, 2015
Montpelier — Vermont has a reputation for being squeaky clean. Montpelier is no Albany. Nor is the sleepy state capital anything like Boston.

State officials and lawmakers for years have said Vermont is so small (population 626,000) that no one can get away with anything, but the recent spate of ethical allegations and criminal proceedings have changed that perception.

One outrage followed another in the waning days of the last legislative session, raising questions about what should be done about a public perception that the Statehouse and state government itself is no longer a bastion of wholesome propriety.

Public confidence in the state’s highest office began to erode several years ago when Gov. Peter Shumlin was accused of taking advantage of his neighbor, Jeremy Dodge. This spring there were allegations that Vermont attorney general Bill Sorrell violated campaign finance laws and took money from law firms he later hired. Then there were questions about the propriety of the Senate president pro tempore taking a job after allegedly lobbying for the position in the state budget.

In May, lawmakers were shocked by the arrest on Statehouse grounds and the ensuing criminal investigation of state Sen. Norm McAllister, who is accused of sexually assaulting several women, one of whom was an intern who lived with several lawmakers in Montpelier.

There were also questions about a lawmaker’s sponsorship of a bill that one blogger said amounted to personal gain. And just last week, a House representative told a TV reporter he solicited funds from lobbyists to help pay for travel expenses to conferences.

Jim Condos, the secretary of state, points to these incidents as evidence that the Legislature needs to create an ethics commission.

“It’s another piece of building trust in government,” Condos said. “It’s about trust in government, it’s about knowing what government is doing. It’s not that we have a serious issue, but from time to time things come up, and they should be addressed by an independent board of some kind not tied to any particular group.”

Condos said operating only on trust is no longer an option. The current laws are inadequate, and the state’s ethical standards should be clarified, he said. The Secretary of State’s Office, for example, has no authority to investigate or enforce, and every week his office receives complaints about municipal officials. Citizens, he said, come away from the process “feeling frustrated, helpless and increasingly cynical.”

Condos is proposing more disclosure rules for officeholders and the formation of an ethics commission that he said will give Vermonters a one-stop shop for complaints about public officials. Currently, there is no state statute in place that requires state officials to reveal conflicts of interest and disclose financial information. Campaign finance data is submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office but the secretary does not verify the accuracy of information filed by candidates.

Vermont is the only state in the Northeast that does not have an ethics commission. Nationally, all but a handful of states have some kind of commission that reviews complaints about conflicts of interest, abuses of power and ethical issues.

Allen Gilbert, the director of the Vermont chapter of the ACLU, said it’s time for the Legislature to create an ethics commission because there is more money in politics now than there was 10 years ago.

“When you see the allegations that are being made against the Vermont attorney general stemming from campaign contributions and his office awarding contracts to certain law firms, people begin to think that there are deals being made that may be legal but certainly don’t appear to be the way good government works,” Gilbert said. “If Vermont doesn’t do something, there really might be something going on that needs to be disclosed and greater oversight might help to do that.”

When lawmakers have closed-door meetings and act in self-interest, the public perception is that the Legislature and statewide officials “have something to hide,” Gilbert said. “It’s not very flattering, and it very well might not be true.”

The Vermont House created an ethics panel last year and new rules require lawmakers to submit conflict of interest disclosures, in which they must report employers and board membership. The information, however, gathered on paper forms, remains in a file drawer in the House clerk’s office. There has been no attempt to scan and post the information online, or incorporate the information in legislative biographies on the Legislative Council’s directory of lawmakers.

Meanwhile, members of the Vermont Senate last legislative session sat on a resolution that would have resulted in a similar set of rules.

Condos said self-policing isn’t enough. He wants to see the state form an independent, three-member ethics commission comprised of appointees by the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state. The commission would have three to five full-time staff members who would be charged with investigating complaints and enforcing disclosure and other requirements for the full gamut of public officials from the governor to statewide officeholders, lawmakers and municipal officials. An ombudsman would be hired to handle public records and open meeting law complaints. Commissioners would be paid on a per diem basis, and the staff would receive state salaries.

Condos pitched his ideas to the press before talking to key lawmakers and that impolitic move on what many see as a sore subject could hurt his chances for persuading legislators that a $500,000-a-year ethics commission is a worthwhile project in a year when the state faces another 
$50 million shortfall in fiscal year 2016. Several lawmakers questioned why the secretary would bring the issue up now.

When Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham, heard about the plan, her first response was, “No, no, no, that’s not going to happen.” She exclaimed in the next breath: “We already don’t have enough money!”

White dismisses the idea of a full-blown commission that would oversee ethics questions across all of government in part because it would not have the constitutional authority to sanction members of the Legislature — only the Senate and the House can expel or penalize lawmakers.

White prefers the formation of a Senate ethics panel that polices members, but didn’t make it a priority this session. She didn’t release the language until April, about the same time that Seven Days ran a story about Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Quechee, allegedly teeing up a position for himself as a deputy prosecutor in Windham County. White said she was afraid the ethics panel resolution would look like a reaction to Paul Heintz’s story. The resolution then got stuck in the rules committee and never made it to the Senate floor.

“We felt that there were other issues we wanted to get done, the Office of Professional Regulation changes, the dental bill, same-day registration,” White said. “We’ll do it in January when we come back.”

Aside from the money, White and others aren’t so sure Montpelier has a problem and that more bureaucracy is the solution.

Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, the head of the new House ethics panel, is also “lukewarm” to the idea of a state commission.

“I think putting something like this in place when we seemingly don’t have a major problem I’m aware of makes me wonder, are you stimulating complaints? Are you creating a problem where one doesn’t exist?” Deen said. “If Condos brings it in and I’ll have to vote on it, I’ll have to see if there is a problem that rises to the level of putting it in place. I’ve got a lot of good places to use 

Deen said in order for an independent commission to sanction lawmakers there would have to be a change to the Constitution. In other words, the commission could investigate and make recommendations, but could not take action to censure a member of the Legislature.

The systems — criminal and legislative — for evaluating questions of impropriety and wrongdoing, he said, are working. When Sen. McAllister, R-Franklin, was charged with sex assaults, for example, he was apprehended by the criminal justice system. Whether he could continue serving in the Statehouse is a question only the Senate can decide. When McAllister refused to resign, lawmakers stripped him of his committee assignments, and Campbell has said if he doesn’t step down he will be expelled in January.

Recently, a blogger filed a formal complaint against a House member alleging he acted in self-interest. Under House rules, lawmakers may not vote for an issue in which they have a “particular interest.” John Walters, who publishes liberal opinions on Vermont Political Observer, sent a letter to Deen asking for an investigation of Rep. Adam Greshin, I-Warren. Walters said Greshin, a partner in Sugarbush Resort, would have personally benefited from an amendment he proposed. The provision would have frozen increases in an energy efficiency surcharge, and because it would have lowered electricity costs for the resort, Walters said Greshin was acting in self-interest. He also accused Greshin of benefiting from the Efficiency Vermont program (the resort, like others in the state, recently took advantage of a snow gun trade-in offer) and then pulling the rug out from other entities and individuals who haven’t yet taken advantage of the program. The amendment passed the House, but didn’t make it through the Senate.

The ethics panel vetted the complaint and determined there was no wrongdoing. Deen declined to comment because he said the panel treats complaints against lawmakers as a confidential personnel matter.

“I think the process worked as advertised,” Greshin said.

Greshin said his interest in Sugarbush is posted on his online biography and is well known by other lawmakers and his constituents. He said he didn’t stand to benefit from the change proportionally any more than any other ratepayer.

“The energy efficiency charge is paid by all ratepayers based on energy usage,” he said by email. “As the owner of an energy intensive business, I would certainly benefit from a freeze in the energy efficiency charge, but all ratepayers would benefit in proportion to their energy usage. I would be treated no differently than any other ratepayer.”

The ethics commission has support from an important corner. House Speaker Shap Smith said he is “more than willing to take a look” at Condos’ proposal.

“I don’t think that it’s an outlandish idea,” he said. “I would want to see how it would work, what it would cost. But I sure as heck wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. I would want to compare it to other states and how it has improved government in other states.”

But the commission won’t address the root cause of ethical violations, which Smith said is money in politics.

“If you look at what is happening in other states, even where they have set up commissions, it hasn’t solved the problem,” Smith said. “The problem is money; political races cost money and you have to raise money, and the court has said an unlimited amount of money can go into political speech.”

Kevin Ellis, a former Burlington Free Press reporter, longtime lobbyist and a board member of the Vermont Journalism Trust/VtDigger, said commissions can be a vehicle for “politicians to cover their tracks.”

Ellis said the commission is “a solution in search of a problem.” He said an aggressive, unfettered press will root out conflicts of interest and ethical improprieties better than any commission.

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