Category Archives: ethics

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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The flip side of a bishop’s obituary

Kenneth Angell, the former bishop of the diocese of Burlington, has died. The Burlington Free Press marked the occasion with a story that completely failed to mention  his “see no evil, hear no evil, maybe there’ll be no evil” approach to the Roman Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal.

But hey, I’ll be happy to fill in the blanks.

Angell was stationed in Burlington from 1992 to 2005. Before that, he served for 18 years as the bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, one of the many epicenters of priestly criminality and hierarchical complicity.

A total of 36 lawsuits were filed by alleged victims of clergy sex abuse in the Diocese. They were , eight years after Angell had moved on to Burlington, for $13.5 million. A couple examples of Angell’s approach to victims’ complaints:

Bishop Angell testified in a 1990 lawsuit that he did not take seriously allegations – made by both parishioners and assistant priests – that the Rev. William O’Connell was molesting boys. The priest was convicted, served a short sentence, moved to New Jersey, committed more crimes and died in prison. In another Rhode Island case, Bishop Angell in 1989 promised to “take care of it” when the Rev. Normand Demers was accused of misconduct with boys while working at a Haitian orphanage, according to a former orphanage staffer. The priest was brought back to work in the Providence diocese.

“Did not take seriously,” indeed. This is exactly the kind of wishful thinking that turned a handful of bad apples into a worldwide scandal that left thousands of victims emotionally scarred, and undermined the moral authority of the Church.

At the same time, Angell was a man on fire when his own definition of morality came under threat.

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Lost in the weeds

Sue Minter seems to be spending a lot of time lately trying to out-ethics Phil Scott. After he announced he would sell his stake in Dubois Construction if elected governor, she continued to pound on potential conflicts of interest. Now, she’s returning campaign donations from a lawyer connected to the scandal-plagued EB-5 developments ni the Northeast Kingdom.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think this is a waste of time and unlikely to resonate with voters. It’s the kind of stuff that political insiders (and us outsiders who obsess about politics) care about, but I seriously question whether the voters do.

Besides which, trying to blacken Scott’s reputation is a mug’s game. He’s such a familiar figure with such a positive image; you’re not likely to change people’s minds unless there’s an October Surprise lurking in Scott’s closet.

Better, in my mind, to focus on the issues, where Scott is weakest.

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Phil’s Conflict (UPDATED)

UPDATE: He did it! He chose Option 1A — he will sell his share in Dubois Construction if he wins the governorship. Full credit to him for doing the right thing. And no, I don’t feel sorry for him possibly having to exit the family firm he’s spent most of his adult life in; his share of the firm is worth two and a half million dollars. That’ll buy an awful lot of binkies. 

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Kudos to Mr. Leadership Phil Scott for unveiling his conflict-of-interest fix at the friendliest possible venue — his construction firm’s annual picnic. Ah yes: burgers, dogs, potato salad, Daddy Pops, frisbees, sack races, football tossin’, and the long-awaited announcement of how he will handle the inherent conflict of owning a firm that regularly bids on state contracts.

“One of these things is not like the others…”

This isn’t the first time he’s tried to settle this particular issue, which tells me his past solutions have failed to satisfy. The fact that he’ll make this announcement before a crowd of family, friends, and folks on his payroll doesn’t fill me with confidence about how he’ll handle it this time.

Heck, I don’t know if he’ll even take questions. Even if there is an opportunity, the occasion certainly won’t be conducive to aggressive questioning; any reporters who get uppity are likely to be shouted down by the Scottophiliac audience.

All of which leads me to expect some kind of half-assed, modestly tweaked version of his laughable “blind trust.” If so, well, he might have to try yet again.

In my mind, there are only two credible choices for him. That is, if he really wants to eliminate any appearance of conflict. I don’t expect him to choose either one.

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