If the Legislature Is Becoming More Professional, How About Better Ethics Rules?

The Vermont Legislature has a well-established policy of avoidance when it comes to ethical standards. You see it in the weak-ass State Ethics Commission, which has no investigative or enforcement authority. You see it in the House and Senate ethics panels, which conduct their business behind closed doors (when they even bother to meet) and have never, ever taken action against one of their own.

And you see it in the useless financial disclosure rules they set for themselves. This has come to the fore with VTDigger’s multi-part exploration of lawmakers’ disclosures. It finds, no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention, that the requirements are so minimal as to negate the purpose of disclosure, which is to reveal potential conflicts of interest.

Also, there’s no enforcement mechanism and no penalties for failing to disclose or failing to file at all. It’s amazing what happens when a group of people gets to set their own rules, isn’t it?

One of the excuses floated for this studied laxness is that Vermont Has A Citizen Legislature and lawmakers shouldn’t be expected to consent to fidiuciary proctoscopies in order to serve. They kinda-sorta have a point, although their citizenship doesn’t prevent abuses or change their obligation to serve the public interest.

But now the Legislature is taking a big step toward professionalism — at least when it comes to pay and benefits. Does this merit a revisit of ethics and disclosure rules? You bet it does.

Our piss-poor ethics regimen ought to be an embarrassment. The fact that it isn’t is a testimony to our capacity for unmerited self-regard. Several years ago a then-senior lawmaker accosted me in the Statehouse cloak room after I’d written a piece about ethics and upbraided me, saying “Vermonters are better than that.” Meaning, people like him didn’t need ethics rules because they were inherently above all of that. By the same standard, we don’t need traffic cops because Vermonters are so pure that they’d never think to exceed the speed limit.

Things have gotten a little tiny bit better in fits and starts ever since, usually because the embarrassment gets to be too much for lawmakers to bear comfortably. It’s happening again this week, as Digger’s series is prompting some tightening of collars and nervous throat-clearing — and an acknowledgment that maybe possibly they ought to do a little something.

Emphasis on “little.”

One of the embarrassments uncovered by Digger is the fact that the Secretary of State’s office has so thoroughly hidden candidate disclosure forms that the current Secretary had trouble finding them on her own website. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, who was no friend of ethics when she chaired the House Government Operations Committee, has promised to make the forms more findable — but she’s drawing the line at making them searchable, which is a minimal nod toward transparency.

Copeland Hanzas told Digger that creating a disclosure database “will take some resources” and might better be done by the State Ethics Commission.

Er, that would be the chronically, desperately underfunded* State Ethics Commission which has a staff of one-half of one person and barely two nickels to rub together. Yeah, they’ll get right on that.

*Underfunded, need I say, by the Legislature. Key role played by Copeland Hanzas’ committee when she was its chair.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth, whose charge includes protecting his caucus from embarrassment, admits that it might be a good idea to post senatorial disclosure forms online — which they have somehow failed to do before now.

Anything tougher than that gets obscured by a squid-worthy barrage of verbal ink. On the inadequate disclosure requirements and the exemption of senatorial spouses from disclosure, he said “we’ll be discussing this and trying to figure out if the way we’re doing it makes sense,” which usually means “we’ll make some polite noises about this until people stop paying attention, again.”

And Baruth balked at the notion of actually enforcing disclosure rules. “I guess I would say that’s your job,” he told VTDigger.

Well, yeah, it’s the media’s job to occasionally pore through the available forms and spark a fresh round of red faces under the Golden Dome. But it’s the Legislature’s job to ensure that its members uphold the public interest instead of their own. The current ethics and disclosure standards completely fail to do so.


2 thoughts on “If the Legislature Is Becoming More Professional, How About Better Ethics Rules?

  1. P.

    Does more professional mean more “firings” at election time for non- completion of work projects and poor job performance? Gods I hope so.


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