Senate ethics discussion devolves into farce

Well, now we know why the Senate Rules Committee likes to meet behind closed doors. Because yesterday, with reporters in the room, things got so badly out of control that they had to abruptly pack up and leave. Fortunately, VTDigger’s Mark Johnson was on hand to chronicle the chaos. His report is a classic case of “this would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.”

Senate Rules, a committee designed to defend the status quo, has been forced by events to take up the issue of ethics regulation — the very idea of which seems to offend at least three of the panel’s five members.

The saddest thing? The shambolic performance didn’t even concern a really tough issue. To anyone hoping for genuine ethics reform — like, for example, a state Ethics Commission — yesterday’s meeting was a knife in the back. The five Senators couldn’t even handle the much less impactful idea of an in-house Ethics Panel using the House’s toothless joke of a watchdog as a model.

Instead, they got stuck in the weeds of disclosure requirements.

The House requires disclosure of employment, but not of investments and other financial interests. Senate Rules member and Majority Leader Phil Baruth is pushing for more financial disclosure. Not exactly a radical notion, and perfectly germane in a time when many people have larger portfolios than they do paychecks.

He was met with staunch opposition from the two heaviest doorstops in the Senate, President Pro Tem John Campbell and 32-year incumbent Dick Mazza. As Johnson put it, they “said they were worried that having to provide too much information might chill people to serve in a citizen Legislature or in some cases, it was unnecessary.”

Yeah, you establish an Ethics Panel that’s not completely impotent, and before you know it you’ve got empty seats in the Senate.

And there’s that “unnecessary” canard. Yep, we Vermonters are all good, solid folk. None of us would ever dream of doing something unsavory, and the very notion that we need oversight is an insult to our good natures.

In the wake of the Norm McAllister spectacle, how in the blue Hell can any sane person believe that? If we learned anything from his arrest and prosecution, it’s that you never really know. Odds are, the good old boy sitting next to you is a decent human being. But you can’t assume that, and you need a mechanism for dealing with the occasional bad apple.

Campbell, Mazza, and chief McAllister acolyte Peg Flory comprise a majority of the Rules Committee — and isn’t that a wretched state of affairs — took the position that the Senate already has adequate safeguards. Campbell noted that senators are already required to abstain when they have a conflict, and then “appeared to get irritated” and asked Baruth “if he knew of any senator who was violating the rules.”

Aww, c’mon. That’s not the point and you know it. Without disclosure or enforcement of any kind, you’re asking us to take the word of every lawmaker. Including the likes of Norm McAllister, who was a Statehouse fixture until the precise moment of his arrest.

The Three Doorstops are far more interested in preserving the privileges of office than in protecting the interests of Vermonters. And if you don’t believe me, just read Johnson’s transcription of the argument that brought the committee’s meeting to an abrupt end.

Heck, at one point Campbell tried to silence Baruth by admonishing him not to air their laundry in public:

“I hate to say it, what you’re doing is you’re saying is any attempt to tighten up these disclosure things is laughable and it’s not,” Baruth said. “That’s why we’re here. And that’s why…”

“Wait. I didn’t say it’s laughable,” Campbell shot back, then talking over Baruth said. “No, no, don’t. You have reporters here. Do not, Do not…”

And later:

Baruth: “John, I understand what you’re saying…”

Campbell: “So, I do take offense to your comments about being lighthearted…”

At which point, Sen Peg Flory jumped in: “I move to adjourn.”

Campbell stopped mid-sentence, scooped up his papers and left.

Great Moments In Leadership.

The entire transcript is a must-read for anyone interested in how the Senate really works. Like I said, it’d be funny if the stakes weren’t so real.

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