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Editorial: Ethics in Vermont

Thursday, July 30, 2015
When Gov. Peter Shumlin finally came out unequivocally in favor of creating a state ethics commission last week, his spokesman told The Associated Press that the timing was not related to potential conflicts of interest that have surfaced recently involving current and former members of his administration and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.

Maybe not, but these situations, taken together with earlier ones involving Attorney General William Sorrell and Senate President John Campbell, make a compelling case that Vermont, despite its reputation for probity, needs formal ethics guidance and enforcement for legislative and executive branch officials.

Consider:

∎ Brent Raymond, who headed the state office that managed the federal EB5 program in Vermont, departed earlier this month to take a job overseeing the Mount Snow ski resort’s pursuit of $50 million in foreign investment through the same program. When that news surfaced, the governor did express concern about possible conflict of interest and asked the Commerce and Community Development secretary to review all the communications leading up to Raymond’s departure to ensure that the relevant conflict and ethics policies were followed.

∎ Alyssa Schuren, promoted from deputy commissioner to commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, is married to the executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which often assumes an advocacy role on issues that are before the department, such as reducing solid waste and regulating toxic chemicals. Schuren, a Shumlin spokesman says, recuses herself from agency decisions in which VPIRG might have an interest.

∎ Scott, a likely Republican candidate for governor, co-owns a construction company that has received $3.78 million in state contracts over the 15 years Scott has served, first as a state senator and now as lieutenant governor. Scott says he has gone to great lengths to avoid having his company bid on any contracts related to his political duties and that he would distance himself from the company were he to be elected governor.

All three of these situations, like those involving Sorrell and Campbell, may be perfectly innocent. But they are sufficiently problematic to require a review by an independent body able to evaluate them according to standards that are clearly articulated and strictly enforced.

There is no shortage of proposals to address this issue: In June, Secretary of State Jim Candos endorsed the creation of an independent three-member ethics panel with a three-to- five-person staff to investigate complaints; the nonprofit Campaign for Vermont recently launched a petition drive calling for establishment of such a panel; and a bipartisan group of lawmakers filed legislation in 2014 and this year, calling for the creation of a five-member ethics commission, a written code of conduct for legislative and executive branch officials, and civil penalties of up to $10,000 for violations. That legislation is still pending and can be taken up next year.

We tend to think that the only thing lacking to get this done is a sense of urgency on the part of lawmakers, who too often seem to regard ethics questions as a distraction from the state’s important business. We’d argue instead that they are central to the governing mission. Vermonters need to be assured that officials who are transacting government business in their name are doing so for the public good, not to further a private interest.




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