Watchdog group: Vermont’s ethics commission is worthless

According to a new report from the nonprofit Coalition for Integrity, Vermont is one of the worst states in the nation for ethics enforcement in government.

The C4I’s report (first reported in Vermont by VTDigger) compares the ethics processes of all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Vermont is in a three-way tie for next-to-last, along with Utah and Virginia. All three states have an entirely toothless ethics process. (Five states ā€” Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming ā€” have no ethics agency at all.)

The report’s Vermont section is a depressing read. It notes that our Ethics Commission is purely an advisory body with “no authority to investigate or enforce the ethics laws.” All it can do is review ethics complaints and refer them on to agencies with actual power. And all of its activity is shielded from public scrutiny.

This is no surprise to anyone who’s been following my coverage of the Commission’s establishment on this blog and in the pages of Seven Days. (If you do a site search for “ethics,” you’ll find the relevant stories.) Indeed, an entirely toothless ethics process is exactly what the legislature intended. After staunchly resisting the very idea that Vermont needed ethical standards, lawmakers did just barely enough to make it seem like they cared. But they don’t.

And the Democratic majority bears the responsibility for this sad state of affairs, because Democrats have the power. They used it to stonewall every idea for real ethics enforcement. They show every sign of continuing to hold that position. In fact, lawmakers essentially bullied the Ethics Commission into rewriting its own rules on advisory opinions to end any possibility that any of the panel’s work would ever be available for public inspection.

A secret ethics process. Isn’t it ironic, don’tcha think?

The fundamental belief of anti-enforcement lawmakers is that Vermonters are fundamentally good people who don’t need a watchdog to keep ’em honest. Yeah, tell that to any Vermont nonprofit or business (including, now, the Vermont Democratic Party itself) that’s been victimized by embezzlement from within.

The legislature’s approach to ethics is the same as anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist’s philosophy of government: Make it so small and weak that it can be drowned in a bathtub.

Yeah, if such a tragedy should ever befall our ethics commission, we’d never hear the whimpers for help.

This approach has received the tacit blessing of House and Senate leadership, who have appointed committee chairs who are firmly opposed to real ethics enforcement. Senate Government Operations Committee chair Jeanette White sees no need for such things, and has used her position to squash any proposals for tougher measures. She’s known for casting doubt that anyone but the damned news media cares a bit about the issue.

Of course, she’s also known for publicly opposing a bill that would have created a state-maintained list of all rental properties ā€” by arguing that she didn’t want to list her own property. Yep, she openly acknowledged her own conflict of interest.

The Gov Ops chair on the House side, Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, made it clear that she was no fan of toughening the ethics regime. She was more diplomatic than White, but she cast doubt on the need for further steps. And she enthusiastically joined in the critical reception her committee gave to members of the commission, slamming them for the notorious advisory opinion that Gov. Phil Scott has an ethical conflict due to his $2.5 million long-term loan to the construction company he used to co-own.

“A toothless ethics agency serves no purpose,” says the first conclusion of the C4I report. This ought to be a wake-up call to Vermont lawmakers, but their track record proves the opposite. They’re entirely content to Norquist their way through the ethics issue.

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