Senate May Do Absolute Minimum on Ethics

That wacky Senate Rules Committee, under the steady hand of First Mate Gilligan President Pro Tem John Campbell, is considering a bold move.

Well, “bold” by their frame of reference. The committee met yesterday and discussed setting up an Ethics Panel along the lines of the weaksauce House version. Mind you, they didn’t decide anything; they’re just considering it.

And, well, if they do actually set up an Ethics Panel, I might file the inaugural complaint (just as I did, fruitlessly, with the House Ethics Panel last year). My complaint would be, ahem, against the Senate Rules Committee. The intrepid Paul Heintz:

The Senate Rules Committee, which has a long history of meeting secretly, held Thursday’s discussion behind closed doors in the Senate Cloakroom. Seven Days has repeatedly asked to be informed of such meetings and was told about it in advance by a member. [Senate Secretary John] Bloomer posted public notice of the meeting Thursday morning on the legislature’s website, just hours before it took place. One other reporter, from the Burlington Free Press, attended.

Is it just me, or is there something fundamentally ironic about a “Rules” Committee repeatedly failing to abide by open-meetings requirements? Nothing says “transparency” like having “a history of meeting secretly.” And in a frickin’ closet, no less.

Anyway. Even the most hidebound of Senators has begun to realize how silly they look not having any sort of ethics body after a year that saw one of them dragged off by the cops and charged with multiple felonies, and the Attorney General undergoing an independent investigation.

But how to respond. Hmm… the Secretary of State is championing a State Ethics Commission (Vermont is one of only eight states without one). But that’d cost money, it’d be so darn official, and worst of all, it’d be out of the Senate’s control. So why not an Ethics Panel? It’s neat, it’s cheap, and it’s controllable. (Ten to one, Dick Mazza will be a member.)

I mean, look at the House’s version. When it gets a complaint, it deliberates in secret. It consults with the Representative who’s the subject of the complaint, and no one else. You don’t hear a peep until the Panel has finished its work and published its findings. And hey presto, the Representative is exonerated! No muss, no fuss.

And John Bloomer used the House Ethics Panel as the template for the Senate version. Truly, our elected representatives are more interested in covering their own asses than in presenting even the appearance of transparency and concern about ethics.

So I ask you. If the shackling of Norm McAllister and the independent probe of Bill Sorrell, plus the execrable first voyage of the House Ethics Panel, doesn’t convince our lawmakers to do something real, meaningful, and serious, what exactly will it take?

Well, to give you an idea, Bloomer sees a problem with the House Ethics Panel. No, it’s not the deliberating in secret. No, it’s not failing to give the complainant any say in the process. And no, it’s not the fact that even if the Panel took action, it’d amount to a slap on the wrist.

It is, and I kid you not, the possibility that a lawmaker might be unfairly tainted by the process. Bloomer wants to eliminate the terminology of “complaint” because that implies some sort of wrongdoing.

“What really happens if you start calling those all complaints, I think somebody can play a political game by filing complaints against you,” Bloomer said.

Yeah, John. It’s my fault that Adam Greshin lobbied long and hard for a bill that would have saved his Sugarbush Ski Resort a substantial pile of money.

I guess having an ethics process is okay as long as it doesn’t do anything.

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