Secretary of State Jim Condos is making a welcome, and timely, push for an independent State Ethics Commission. In a press release issued this morning, he also called for “a clear law regarding ethics, conflicts of interest, and financial disclosure for our elected officials.”
This really shouldn’t be an issue; we are one of only three states without such a body. And in a year that’s already seen Attorney General Bill Sorrell facing an independent investigation, a sitting Senator arrested on felony charges on the Statehouse grounds, significant questions about the Senate President Pro Tem, and a secretive House Ethics Panel with a very permissive interpretation of “ethics,” you’d think we could dispense with the old “We’re Vermonters, we do the right thing, we don’t need an ethics law” argument.
I mean, if anybody still believes that, they’re whistling past the graveyard.
As Condos puts it:
Just in the last few years, Vermonters have heard allegations of ethical issues about the Governor, Attorney General, legislators, candidates, and municipal officials. These complaints cross all party lines. The Secretary of State’s office receives calls almost every week about municipal officials, alleging conflicts of interest and other ethically suspect actions. With no authority for the Secretary of State to investigate or enforce these complaints, these citizens come away from the process feeling frustrated, helpless and increasingly cynical.
That “no authority” problem reared its ugly head in the Sorrell case. Our Eternal General is accused of (among other things) filing sketchy campaign finance reports; Condos said his office had no authority to investigate or discipline Sorrell. That’s kind of a problem, no?
The only loophole in Condos’ presentation is an oldie but a goodie: his proposed law would apply to “elected officials,” which leaves out appointed officials — especially members of the cabinet and executive branch. There’s been a very active revolving door in Vermont, with prominent individuals passing rapidly between public and private service. (The kinds of private service that involve, ahem, interacting with the government.) This has been the case for a long time, not just with our current administration; although the door’s been spinning quite a bit under Gov. Shumlin’s watch.
In the past, Shumlin has expressed support for just such an “elected officials” ethics law. On the other hand, he has often repeated the old canard that we Vermonters are a noble folk who always do the right thing.
It remains to be seen how hard he would push for an ethics law, given likely resistance from the Legislature. That body has not covered itself with glory on the subject. The House and Senate have the shortest and sketchiest ethics “rules” you’ll find anywhere; the Senate doesn’t even have its own tame ethics committee; the House created its first Ethics Panel just last year and, as I recently discovered, its proceedings take place entirely out of public view. A curious way to ensure the public interest.
And our ethically questionable Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, who very belatedly talked of a Senate Ethics Panel after the inglorious arrest of Sen. Norm McAllister, posited that such a panel would be a place “where people can go to clear their name if someone makes an accusation.”
And then he let the session expire without taking any action. I’m betting he hopes it’ll all blow over by January.
This ought to be a bipartisan issue, considering that Republican Rep. Heidi Scheuermann has been a leading advocate for ethics reform in recent years. She hasn’t gotten very far; her bill has basically sat in a House committee since she introduced it.
You’d think she’d have at least some support in the GOP caucus. They might be more inclined to support an ethics law now, under a Democratic administration, than they were when Jim Douglas ruled the roost. Remember what he once said about the need for an ethics commission?
I think Vermont is a state where we can be proud of the people that serve in all branches of government, people who for the most part are above reproach, people of integrity and people who follow the constitutional edict of serving the public and acting in the public interest.
Douglas said those moldy, unconvincing words just after a controversy involving potential ethical violations by one of his Cabinet officials (Neale Lunderville). At the time, under a Republican administration, Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington was calling for an ethics code for all state officials and the creation of an ethics commission.
I don’t know how our current Speaker feels about it. If the structure of the House Ethics Panel is anything to go by, he might need a bit of a push.
And there’s the rub. We have to depend on the very people who might benefit from a vague, unaccountable ethics regimen to voluntarily subject themselves (and others) to more rigorous standards. The more power a party has, the seemingly less inclined they are to toughen the standards.
It’s a tough sell. But it’s time for action.