Charity Clark stepped down today as Attorney General TJ Donovan’s chief of staff. The remarkably coy announcement of the move said she “has stepped down from her post to explore new opportunities” and would “make an announcement about her plans in the near future.”
Yuh-huh. She’s running for AG. She’s hinted as much, and it’s the most obvious reason for her sudden departure, which (a) apparently took immediate effect and (b) came only four days after Donovan announced he would leave office at the end of his term or possibly before.
I guess it ends all speculation that Clark might be elevated to acting attorney general should Donovan depart before Election Day, thus giving her the kinda-sorta incumbent’s edge. If so, it’s a noble and selfless move.
And it raises questions about Chris Winters, deputy secretary of state, who remains in office nearly three months after he announced his candidacy to succeed his boss, Jim Condos.
If Clark thought it best to resign before she even opened the doors on her campaign, why hasn’t Winters?
Given Vermont’s laughably lax ethics standards — well, actually, nonexistent ethics standards, since the Code of Ethics adopted by the Legislature isn’t yet in effect — there’s probably no requirement for Winters to step aside. Plenty of people do hold one office while seeking another; to name three, Molly Gray, Becca Balint and Kesha Ram Hinsdale. And Peter Welch.
But being #2 in the Secretary of State’s office and running for #1 is arguably a different, and stinkier, kettle of fish. A few reasons:
First, Winters is running for the job immediately above him, and he’s benefited from public statements firmly linking him with Condos. He’s been depicted as the next best thing to a co-secretary of state. That’s giving him a unique advantage in the primary campaign.
Second, the Secretary of State’s office oversees Vermont elections. Winters plays a role in administering the very process he’s seeking to benefit from. If I were one of his primary opponents, I’d have questions.
Third, Secretary Condos has been a strong advocate for tougher ethics standards for public officials. Would Winters continue that emphasis? His continued occupancy of the deputy’s position makes one wonder.
Fourth, conflict of interest isn’t merely about actual conflict. It’s about the appearance of conflict. Many an officeholder has brushed aside ethical questions by basically asserting that they have the purest of intentions.
Gov. Phil Scott has taken that position in strongly defending his long-term, low-interest loan to the people who bought his half of DuBois Construction after he became governor. The deal meant he didn’t have a managerial interest, as he will tell you at every opportunity. But he clearly had a financial interest. If I were in the business of bidding for state construction contracts, I’d wonder if DuBois received special consideration whether Scott asked for it or not. His appointees might take it upon themselves to give DuBois an edge, thus helping the company keep on making monthly payments to the governor.
(This whole chapter is now seemingly in the rear-view after DuBois was sold in February. At the time, the seller said that Scott’s loan would be resolved in the process.)
Winters’ continuing position of responsibility over elections, campaign finance and ethics would seem to constitute a clear appearance of conflict. He may have the purest of intentions, but that’s not the point. Public trust in officeholders and institutions can be harmed by the simple appearance of conflict.
Is there an appearance of conflict here? I think so. Clark’s decision to resign puts Winters’ decision in an unfavorable light. He should explain how his position isn’t a conflict or an appearance of same. Or he should consider resigning himself.