Well, the House Ethics Panel quickly disposed of my complaint against Rep. Adam Greshin. I can’t say I’m surprised that he was given a clean bill of ethical health, but I am disappointed.
Reminder: Greshin proposed, and actively lobbied for, an amendment to H.40 that would eliminate a planned increase in funding for Efficiency Vermont, which gets its money from a fee on utility bills. As co-owner of the energy-gobbling Sugarbush ski resort, Greshin stood to profit significantly if his amendment passed.
In my previous post, I covered the questionable process. The panel did its business behind closed doors, which seems an odd move for an ethics panel.
Now it’s time to consider the panel’s decision and reasoning, which leave a lot of room for dubious behavior.
The panel referenced House Rule 75, which reads as follows:
Members shall not be permitted to vote upon any question in which they are immediately or directly interested.
The panel then notes:
House Rule 75 is supplemented by Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure Sec. 522-1, which provides that members should be barred form voting on matters of direct personal interest “only in clear cases and when the matter is particularly personal.” THe word “particularly” as used here means especially or specifically.
And since the Efficiency Vermont fee is imposed on all ratepayers, the Panel ruled that Greshin is not “particularly” affected, even though Sugarbush’s utility bills are far larger than your average ratepayer.
The distinction drawn is that if a measure affects a member in the same way as a large class of people, then that members is not required to recuse himself or herself. There is no distinction made on the size of the impact… just that it not affect a member in a particularly personal manner.
Well, perhaps. I would argue that the plain meaning of the word “particularly” should apply, and Greshin will obviously gain a “particular” benefit, but I’m not a lawyer.
The other problem with the Panel’s ruling, and with House Rule 75 itself, is that no distinction is drawn between voting on a bill and actively seeking to amend it. Greshin’s advocacy went far beyond casting a vote. He was the originator and chief proponent of his amendment; it seems clear that if not for his involvement, EV would have received its increase and Sugarbush’s utility bills would have gone up.
If his behavior didn’t violate ethical standards, he certainly tested their limits. A warning or clarification from the Panel would have been more appropriate and useful than a blanket dismissal.
Vermont’s rules for legislative conflicts of interest are about as brief and generic as they could be. The one-sentence House Rule 75 is about it. The Senate has a very similar Rule 71 and nothing further. The National Conference of State Legislatures has a handy list of each state’s rules, and Vermont’s are among the very briefest.
Legislative rules in the vast majority of states offer specific language defining conflicts of interest and outline conditions which call for recusal from a vote or a declaration of personal interest. Vermont’s rules leave a lot of room for interpretation; the House Ethics Panel has chosen to interpret them very broadly.
Which is fine if you operate under the assumption that Vermont is a small state, everybody knows everybody else, and we are all simple honest woodland folk. But in a year that’s seen an independent investigation of our top law enforcement official, ethical questions concerning the Senate President Pro Tem, and the arrest of a sitting Senator on the Statehouse grounds for numerous felonies, perhaps it’s time to abandon that assumption.