Jeanette White never wanted ethics reform.
The Putney Democrat and chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee made that clear, over and over again. And she blamed a tried-and-true scapegoat for bringing it up:
The issue of ethics and the lack of an ethics commission has been of great interest over the last year or so to the media. How many Vermonters are passionate about the issue is not clear…
Which was obvious bulldookie at the time. But now I’ve got evidence from an unexpected source.
Researchers at Illinois State University have been involved in a lengthy study of corruption in state politics. They took an unusual approach: seeking the perceptions of reporters covering state politics and corruption issues. They reasoned that corruption cases are handled differently in different states, so rates of indictment and conviction might be grossly misleading. Just because, for instance, New York has pursued several high-profile cases doesn’t mean its politics are more corrupt than, say, New Jersey’s. Perception-based studies have their own limitations, but it’s a different way to evaluate what’s going on.
Turns out that in Vermont, reporters see the state as fundamentally clean, untainted by political sleaze. Vermont ranked near the top in most categories, and overall was one of the “cleanest” states in the country in the eyes of our own allegedly cynical media corps.
The study asked reporters to evaluate their state’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches in “illegal corruption” and “legal corruption.” The former is self-explanatory: behavior that violates the law. The latter could be encapsulated in the word “sleaze,” but the full definition is…
… political gains in the form of campaign contributions or endorsements by a government official, in exchange for providing specific benefits to private individuals or groups, be it by explicit or implicit understanding.
Vermont’s worst ranking in any of the six categories was for “legal corruption” in the executive branch. On a scale of one to five, Vermont scored
right dead in the middle just above the midpoint — 3.5. (In no other category did we score higher than a 2.) I would surmise that this has something to do with the “revolving door” that has spun so furiously in Montpelier, and/or state officials’ frequent coziness with private-sector power brokers. Not just during the Shumlin years, but pretty much throughout recent history.
Which is beside the point I’m trying to make here. Which is, the media are not the problem. They have a relatively benign impression of political ethics in Vermont. If they are spending more time on ethics stories now, it’s not because they harbor unfounded suspicions or bear a grudge. It’s because there have been substantial ethical issues in Vermont which they feel duty bound to report.
If anything, our media has been dragged into this by circumstance. As a news consumer, my impression is that, if anything, Vermont media are too soft on public officials, too cozy with the people they cover on a daily basis. That jibes with the ISU study’s findings.
Now, I can just about hear the Senator Whites of the world saying, “But wait, the study proves our other point: Vermont doesn’t have an ethics problem, so it doesn’t need an ethics commission.”
Wrong. First of all, you don’t wait till the horse is stolen to lock the barn. And second, there are enough questions and suspicions to warrant the creation of a watchdog agency.
So no, Senator White, “the media” didn’t fabricate the ethics issue. The real causes are the handful of bad actors and the faint but all-too-pervasive scent of dead fish in the capitol.