Let’s pour one out for Larry Novins, who just resigned as executive director of the Vermont State Ethics Commission. He earns full credit for lasting almost three years in a job with no resources, no power, and no real reason for existing besides allowing the Legislature to look like it gives a good goddamn about ethics.
Which, in reality, it doesn’t. Shame on all of ’em.
Novins’ departure was noted in a press release from the commission, which prompted absolutely zero coverage from the political press. It’s too bad, because he did his level best in service of a hopeless, thankless cause. That would be “governmental ethics in Vermont.” Nobody cares, man. Nobody cares.
The Ethics Commission has had a brief and undistinguished history, by design. It has managed to cling to existence despite the fact that it was clearly designed to fail, Norquist style. Its single accomplishment prompted a tsunami of negative reaction, and was ultimately scrubbed from the books.
And one other thing. All of the Commission’s work — all of it — is exempt from public records and open meetings law. If they did ever do anything, we wouldn’t know about it.
In case you think I’m exaggerating, here’s what Novins himself said in September 2019:
“The difference between ethics oversight in Vermont with an ethics commission and the ethics oversight that we had before is an unenforceable ethics code and a body that forwards complaints to the people who would have gotten them anyway”
Ooh, he said the quiet part out loud!
His remarks came after a report by the Coalition for Integrity found that Vermont had one of the three weakest public-sector ethics systems in America. It said that a “toothless” agency with no investigative or sanctioning power “serves no purpose.”
If you thought that would be a wake-up call to the Legislature, well, you’d be wrong. Every session, Novins (and his predecessor before him) have argued the case for some kind of authority, some minimal resources, and been stonewalled every time.
(Sen. Jeanette White, chair of the committee that oversees ethics, is a staunch opponent of any kind of ethical regimen with actual teeth. It’s one big reason why I put her on my list of senators we’d be better off without.)
The Legislature did take an insultingly small step toward reforming the Commission this year. It passed a bill that, as I wrote at the time, “makes a few minor changes in how the Ethics Commission does its business. Still secret, still unfunded, still toothless.” The most impactful measure in this depressing piece of do-nothing was allowing the Commission to hire a single part-time office assistant.
Until then, Novins had been the sole employee.
In the same session, a bill to create an ethical code of conduct was introduced and quickly died on the vine. None of those bastards want anything codified.
I’ve beaten this dead horse plenty of times before, and I’ll keep on doing so until lawmakers are embarrassed enough to enact a real ethics commission. That should happen about when Hell freezes over.
[Note: This comment is from Dean Corren, former candidate for lieutenant governor. He had trouble posting it, so I’m putting it up on his behalf. –JW]
Where to begin? I first learned that VT had an ethics problem in my first term as a legislator when the Gov Ops Committee drafted a broadly-supported ethics bill which was killed in a few minutes by Speaker Ralph Wright. He also regularly bought legislators’ votes, so maybe he thought it could eventually cramp his style.
I saw it again, very personally, when Attorneys General, Sorrell and Donovan, abused their offices to subvert Vermont’s electoral system, lied to the public and in court, and then covering it up by concealing evidence, and costing Vermonters hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process. Donovan is illegally withholding public records to this day.
Expecting little from the Professional Responsibility Board which is supposed to regulate lawyers, I first approached the Ethics Commission to vet my well-documented charges. To its credit, Novins and the Commission did all it could do – it advanced the complaint to the PRB with regard to Donovan, as a current state employee. As expected, the PRB refused to investigate, completing the coverup. They actually said it’s not illegal for the AG to conceal evidence in a civil case. So much for ethics.
That’s just one small piece of a very big problem, and although most Vermonters would be shocked, Vermont ranks as the most corrupt state in the nation (see: https://bestlifeonline.com/most-corrupt-state-america/), partly due to its lack of ethics enforcement. In this environment, scandals such as the EB-5 are near inevitable.