A little prayer for ethics reform

Ah, Ethics Commission, we hardly knew ye.

Vermont will remain one of a handful of states whose politicians are unburdened by an ethics watchdog. The final benediction was pronounced Tuesday by House leaders, but the fatal blow had been struck in the Senate.

Well, not a blow, actually. The cause of death was slow and methodical.

A bill to establish a state Ethics Commission was shackled to the stone walls of a windowless chamber somewhere beneath the Senate. The cryptkeeper was Jeanette White, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who openly questioned the need for any ethical oversight at all.

Senate Bill 184 was permitted barely enough gruel and water to survive. Over time, its muscles atrophied and it became a mere shadow of itself. Its teeth and claws were extracted, just to make sure it could never do any damage.

And finally,  at the end of last week, after months of captivity, it was paraded across the hallway, shambling, emaciated, wincing at its first glimpse of sunlight since January. By then, it was too far gone to revive. Not that the House put much effort into it.

Rest In Peace, S. 184.

It’s amazing when you think about it. The Senate managed to approve a marijuana-legalization bill in about six weeks’ time. It took more than twice that long to approve a stripped-down, toothless Ethics Commission.

Ridiculous.

There was institutional momentum for the marijuana bill — although it required plenty of arm-twisting to pass. There was no real support for the Ethics Commission, as most Senators clearly valued their own insularity over, to say it plainly, good government.

The protestations of Sen. White and her ilk, that Vermont doesn’t need ethical oversight, ring especially hollow in the midst of the EB-5 scandal. Yes, I realize that Bill Stenger and Ariel Quiros wouldn’t have been subject to Ethics Commission oversight — but the scandal reinforces the lesson we should have learned from Norm McAllister: you never really know.

Bill Stenger was one of the most respected and connected figures in Vermont business. He had a solid reputation as a businessman and entrepreneur. He had numerous friends and allies in Republican and Democratic circles. If he can turn out to be either a crook or a dupe, then who can you trust?

You never really know. 

Or, in the words of a Russian maxim favored by Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify.”

Thanks to the Cryptkeeper and her friends, we’ll have to rely on plain old trust.

I don’t know what the future holds for ethics reform. If we can’t even get a watered-down shadow of an Ethics Commission at a time when the spectre of Norm McAllister hangs over the Senate, the state’s top law enforcement official just went through a first-in-history independent investigation, and a universally praised public/private partnership has just gone kerblooey, when will we?

Not holding my breath.

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