Category Archives: ethics

Hey, the Most Pointless Job in State Government Is Open!

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:

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Rank Hypocrisy From Across the Pond

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik and… um…. What’s His Name

The distinguished representative of New York’s North Country has been on a tear lately, issuing tweet after tweet bashing Gov. Andrew Cuomo for making unwanted advances to women and for apparent dishonesty in reporting Covid casualties. A sampling:

Remind me again: Who’s that guy standing next to her in the photo above?

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Another Baby Step in the Long, Treacherous Journey to Ethical Standards

Couldn’t resist.

Hey, guess what! Vermont is one of only three states without any enforceable ethics standards in law. Let’s hear it for Vermont Exceptionalism!

The effort to change that state of affairs has been percolating along at a barely perceptible pace for years now. At every step along the way, it’s met with opposition by state lawmakers, who tend to be very protective of their rights and obligations. The basic argument is, “Vermont is better than that! We don’t need no stinkin’ ethics law!”

Which is like saying we don’t need speed limits because Vermonters are inherently safe drivers. The vast majority of public officials do their jobs right, just like the vast majority of Vermont drivers abide by the speed limit. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need police patrolling the roads.

The latest turn in this long, depressing saga came Friday afternoon, when the House Government Operations Committee approved H.135, a bill that makes a few minor changes in how the Ethics Commission does its business. Still secret, still unfunded, still toothless. The bill got unanimous support after committee leaders assured members that the bill didn’t really do anything.

Left for future debate are the tough items: Adopting a Code of Ethics in state law, deciding how enforcement will work, whether the Commission should have any powers, and whether it should have a big enough budget to maybe hire at least one full-time staffer. (Right now, the only paid person is Executive Director Larry Novins, and he’s part-time. You call the Ethics Commission, you’ll likely be shunted to voice mail.)

After the jump: A little history, and a look ahead.

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As long as we’re considering youthful indiscretions…

In Thursday’s lieutenant governor debate, Republican Scott Milne launched an all-out attack on Democrat Molly Gray for her supposedly spendthrift agenda and, naturally, her spotty voting record. He scored some points in the process.

He also opened the door to an attack-oriented campaign at odds with his self-positioning as a moderate Nice Guy. And to considerations of each candidate’s personal history. He may live to regret that, since there are a few known skeletons in his otherwise unexplored closet. Let’s start by comparing the two candidates in their formative years.

While graduating from law school, becoming an attorney and establishing herself as a globetrotting professional deeply engaged in justice issues, Gray frequently failed to vote.

Meanwhile, in his youth, Milne was a cocaine user and impaired driver with two DUI arrests.

I dunno, seems like a wash to me.

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Keep the ball

Yesterday on Twitter…

This is absolutely bloody brilliant. And I feel absolutely certain that Congressional Democrats don’t have the stomach to pull it off.

Let’s recap the situation as of midday, Tuesday December 17, 2019. The House of Representatives is due to vote sometime this week on articles of impeachment for That Most Impeachable Of Presidents, Donald Trump. In the normal course of events, the action would move to the Senate for a trial — and an acquittal, thanks to the LALALALA I CAN’T HEAR YOU Republican majority.

Where Lindsey Graham has promised not to listen to the evidence, thus pre-disavowing his duty as a juror. And where Majority Leader “Moscow” Mitch McConnell has openly acknowledged he’s conniving with Trump on trial rules and staging.

The game is fixed. So why play along?

The House should approve impeachment, and then sit on it. Don’t convey the articles to the Senate. There’s nothing that mandates immediate conveyance, and a lot of good arguments for playing keep-away.

For starters, the impeachment process has been the first time in living memory that the Dems have managed to wrest the spotlight away from whatever Trump is tweeting or helicopter-adjacent shouting. They’ve controlled the narrative, and will continue to do so this week.

After that, it’s in Republican hands once again — if the House gives it over to the Senate. The Dems would go back to playing defense.

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The Spurious Leahy Equivalency

Hey folks, pesky fly buzzing about. Time to get out the ol’ elephant gun.

Last week, Vermont’s own conservative writer, lobbyist and Trump apologist Guy Page took to the interwebs to downplay the significance of Our Felonious President’s dealings with Ukraine by making a completely baseless comparison to the actions of St. Patrick Leahy.

As Page would have it, while Trump exerted pressure on Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s dealings in that country*, Leahy also engaged in pressure tactics against that selfsame nation. In May 2018, Leahy and two fellow Senate Democrats sent a letter to the then-senior prosecutor of Ukraine expressing “great concern” that the prosecutor was impeding the Robert Mueller investigation, and urging him to cooperate. The Senators noted that they had been “strong advocates for a robust and close relationship with Ukraine.” Without saying so, they implied that their advocacy could be subject to change.

*Nice of Page to acknowledge Trump’s pressure tactics. Although he characterizes it as “Trump’s pursuit of justice,” ahem.

Aha! See? A classic case of “both sides do it.”

Ehh, not so fast, buddy boy. Trump and Leahy both communicated justice-related concerns with Ukrainian officials, to be sure. But that’s where the similarities end.

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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 — Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming — 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?

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State ethics panel whitewashes its own past

This week, the Vermont State Ethics Commission withdrew its October 2018 advisory opinion about Gov. Phil Scott’s relationship with DuBois Construction, the firm he co-owned before becoming governor. It was a thorough exercise in retconning: The panel retroactively changed the rules of its own game.

Ironic, isn’t it, that a government body that’s all about ethics would try to whitewash its own past. It has even removed the original opinion from its website, replacing it with the following brief statement:

The Vermont State Ethics Commission at its September 4, 2019 meeting approved Executor Director Larry Novins’ recommendation to withdraw Advisory Opinion 18-01 issued on October 1, 2018. The opinion discussed the governor’s financial relationship with his former company which contracts with the State of Vermont. The Commission concluded that the process used at the time was incorrect.

Yeah, great, whatever. I don’t know why the commission chose to make this move almost a year after the fact. I suspect (but cannot prove) that there was pressure from the Scott administration to remove this blemish from the gov’s record. After all, Scott and his minions seem far more concerned about the opinion than anyone else in state government or politics. The voters certainly didn’t care when they overwhelmingly re-elected the guy last November.

To recap the DuBois saga… When Scott became governor, he had to divest himself of his half-ownership in DuBois, which frequently bids on state contracts. His $2.5 million stake represented the lion’s share of his own net worth.

The simplest remedy was to sell his share. Problem is, DuBois’ net worth is tied up in land, buildings and equipment. And a $2.5 million bank loan would have been a millstone around DuBois’ neck. Scott’s solution: He financed the loan himself.

That removed him from ownership and management. However, it tied up most of his net worth in a long-term loan to DuBois, and it provided a nice $75,000 per month year income stream from the company’s monthly payments. In short, Scott had no ownership interest, but he still had a huge financial interest in DuBois’ prosperity.

And that’s clearly a violation of the state ethics code as it’s currently written.

Of course, part of the commission’s retconning exercise is a rewrite of the ethics code. Something tells me it will be carefully crafted to put DuBois-style arrangements in the clear. The other part is a rewrite of its internal processes, which will prevent future cases like l’affaire Scott.

The commission’s current processes were established by legislation in 2018. Those processes occur entirely behind closed doors, exempt from open-meetings and public-records law — with one exception: The issuance of advisory opinions at the request of state officials, employees, or anyone else. Those opinions were the only commission function subject to public release.

It was the “anyone else” that triggered all this mess. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group requested an advisory opinion instead of filing a complaint, because VPIRG wanted the end product to be made public. And it got exactly what it wanted. The state ethics commission ruled that the DuBois deal was in violation of the ethics code — and released that opinion, as it was bound to do.

The opinion was not enforceable. It was purely advisory. But Scott didn’t like it, not one little bit.

Ironically enough, neither did Democratic lawmakers, who might have been expected to exploit the opinion for political gain. Instead, legislative leaders sided with the governor, and raked the commission over the coals during the 2019 session. Their intent, they asserted, had never been to allow outsiders to seek advisory opinions. Well, they had only themselves to blame; they wrote the law that allowed such a move. The commission made submissive noises and promised to make changes, so the legislature dropped any effort to rewrite the law.

And now the commission is following through on the submission routine.

Let me make one thing clear. I don’t suspect the governor of any actual wrongdoing. He’s an honest guy, and it would take a determined (and criminal) effort to subvert the state’s contracting process.

But the ethics code is designed to prevent the appearance of conflict as well as actual conflict itself. I know Scott was between a rock and a hard place on how to divest from DuBois. But ethical standards exist for a reason.

Retconning the standards to benefit a single individual who’s in a tough spot is fundamentally antithetical to the purpose of having an ethics code in the first place. It’s just one more sign that no one in state government is actually serious about ethics — they just want to make it look like they’re serious, so folks like me and VPIRG will shut our yaps and go away.

 

On the handling of unsavory candidates

Preface: This post was written before Paul Heintz posted his story on this subject. My questions are still valid; my thoughts about the extent and consistency of media coverage are tempered somewhat by his article.

Looks like the Vermont Republican Party’s candidate-vetting system has a few holes in it. Turns out that one of VTGOP’s candidates for House has a little revenge-porn problem. WCAX: 

He’s running to represent Colchester in the Legislature, but the divorced businessman is also now facing revenge porn charges.

The alleged victim went to police back in July telling investigators Patrick Liebrecht was posting sexually explicit images of her on social media without her permission.

The alleged scumbag, Pat Liebrecht, has denied the charges… and in the process, he pretty much admiited they’re true.

According to the affidavit, the woman told police once she broke up with him this summer he began posting them on her family and friends’ Facebook pages and threatening her saying, “I will make plenty of trouble for you.”

When police interviewed Liebrecht they say he admitted to posting the nude photos and comments. …

Police say he then denied that the woman was nude in the photo and told them that he could “go onto National Geographic and see that stuff.”

Meaning what, exactly? He only showed boobies?

The VTGOP quickly distanced itself from Liebrecht, although they can’t do anything to get him off the ballot. He will remain a standard-bearer for Republicanism and a potential state officeholder. An ironically apropos one, in the Year of the Trump.

But the case of Mr. Liebrecht, along with those of social-media sulliers Michael McGarghan and Bill Lawrence, raise some questions regarding the party and the media.

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I want no part of Brian Savage’s locker room

In last weekend’s stampede of Vermont Republicans distancing themselves from Donald Trump, there was one high-ranking GOPer who clings stubbornly to The Donald.

That would be Assistant House Minority Leader Brian Savage of Swanton. According to VPR, he first posted a Facebook message saying he was done with Trump, making the dutiful Republican shoutout to his daughter and two granddaughters.

He then apparently thought better (or should I say “worse”) of it, because he later deleted the Facebook post and undeclared his unendorsement of Trump.

“Was it the right thing to say? Is it the right thing to say amongst people? No,” Savage says.

But, he says he agrees with Trump’s characterization of the exchange as ill-conceived locker-room banter.

“We’ve probably said similar things in our lifetime, you and I,” Savage says. “It’s just that the microphone probably wasn’t on.”

Yeah, er, no. Please don’t indict the entire human race with your locker-room misogyny, Mr. Savage. Maybe you talk that way in a roomful of The Boys, but I, for one, have never ever boasted about my ability to commit sexual assault.

Then again, Savage is a Franklin County Republican, so perhaps he shares a locker room with Norm McAllister.

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