Tag Archives: House Ethics Panel

Foxes Establish Henhouse Access Rules

Here’s another sign that Vermont’s Founding Fathers may have been drunk when they wrote our Constitution. Which, among other flaws, appears to give the Legislature sole authority over its own ethics.

Today, the Senate Rules Committee showed why that’s such a bad idea. While the Judiciary Committee has been busily slashing a proposed Ethics Commission into a glorified filing cabinet, the Rules Committee has been developing a parallel process for its own members.

Today, the Rules Committee adopted an ethics process for the Senate. And according to Seven Days’ Nancy Remsen, the Senate ethics process is designed, first and foremost, to ensure that its members are protected from public embarrassment. (To clarify: she didn’t say that, I did. But her outline of the procedure allows no other interpretation.)

As I’ve written before, the House Ethics Panel is a sorry-ass excuse for a watchdog. The Senate ethics panel won’t be any better, and may be significantly worse.

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State Senate trying to Norquist ethics reform

Vermont’s Most Sclerotic Deliberative Body has been taking its time with a proposal to set up a state Ethics Commission. Much more time than they took with legalizing marijuana, and probably longer than they’ll take with the frickin’ budget.

Why the slow play? Well, the Senate’s point person on ethics reform makes it abundantly clear.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham and chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee, said, “Because the press keeps saying that we’re the only state without an ethics commission and clearly we have something to hide … I don’t really believe that.”

Credit to the Associated Press’ Dave Gram for capturing that entry into the Quote of the Year competition.

Jeezum Crow. The Senator in charge of ethics reform doesn’t believe ethics reform is necessary. She blames the media for fomenting “a lack of faith in government officials.”

Methinks the good Senator has been in Montpelier too long. She’s been so deep in the system for so long, she’s lost all perspective.

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Senate May Do Absolute Minimum on Ethics

That wacky Senate Rules Committee, under the steady hand of First Mate Gilligan President Pro Tem John Campbell, is considering a bold move.

Well, “bold” by their frame of reference. The committee met yesterday and discussed setting up an Ethics Panel along the lines of the weaksauce House version. Mind you, they didn’t decide anything; they’re just considering it.

And, well, if they do actually set up an Ethics Panel, I might file the inaugural complaint (just as I did, fruitlessly, with the House Ethics Panel last year). My complaint would be, ahem, against the Senate Rules Committee. The intrepid Paul Heintz:

The Senate Rules Committee, which has a long history of meeting secretly, held Thursday’s discussion behind closed doors in the Senate Cloakroom. Seven Days has repeatedly asked to be informed of such meetings and was told about it in advance by a member. [Senate Secretary John] Bloomer posted public notice of the meeting Thursday morning on the legislature’s website, just hours before it took place. One other reporter, from the Burlington Free Press, attended.

Is it just me, or is there something fundamentally ironic about a “Rules” Committee repeatedly failing to abide by open-meetings requirements? Nothing says “transparency” like having “a history of meeting secretly.” And in a frickin’ closet, no less.

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Like it or not, the Vermont Legislature needs to address ethics

Secretary of State Jim Condos is making a welcome, and timely, push for an independent State Ethics Commission. In a press release issued this morning, he also called for “a clear law regarding ethics, conflicts of interest, and financial disclosure for our elected officials.”

This really shouldn’t be an issue; we are one of only three states without such a body. And in a year that’s already seen Attorney General Bill Sorrell facing an independent investigation, a sitting Senator arrested on felony charges on the Statehouse grounds, significant questions about the Senate President Pro Tem, and a secretive House Ethics Panel with a very permissive interpretation of “ethics,” you’d think we could dispense with the old “We’re Vermonters, we do the right thing, we don’t need an ethics law” argument.

I mean, if anybody still believes that, they’re whistling past the graveyard.

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Greshin cleared; ethical lines remain vague and permissive

Well, the House Ethics Panel quickly disposed of my complaint against Rep. Adam Greshin. I can’t say I’m surprised that he was given a clean bill of ethical health, but I am disappointed.

Reminder: Greshin proposed, and actively lobbied for, an amendment to H.40 that would eliminate a planned increase in funding for Efficiency Vermont, which gets its money from a fee on utility bills. As co-owner of the energy-gobbling Sugarbush ski resort, Greshin stood to profit significantly if his amendment passed.

In my previous post, I covered the questionable process. The panel did its business behind closed doors, which seems an odd move for an ethics panel.

Now it’s time to consider the panel’s decision and reasoning, which leave a lot of room for dubious behavior.

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Another closed door in the People’s House

Constant readers of this blog (Hi, Mom!) will recall that earlier this month, I wrote a letter to the House Ethics Panel asking for a review of Rep. Adam Greshin’s actions regarding H.40, the RESET bill. For less constant readers, my complaint centered on this: Greshin authored an amendment to H.40 stripping away an increase in funding for Efficiency Vermont. (EV had already gotten Public Service Board approval; until this year, legislative review was a mere formality.) He also aggressively lobbied the House and Senate for his amendment.

EV gets its money through a surcharge on utility bills. As co-owner of the Sugarbush Resort, a voracious consumer of electricity ($2 million/year), Greshin stood to gain considerably if his amendment passed.

Well, the Ethics Panel has responded. And as expected, it was a whitewash. Greshin, so they say, did nothing wrong.

I’ll get to the substance of its decision in my next post. First, though, I need to address the process.

Between sending my letter and receiving the Panel’s reply, I didn’t hear anything about it. During the roughly one week between receiving my letter and drafting its ruling, the Panel conducted a review with help from Legislative Counsel. It also met with the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and with Greshin himself. (Correction: The panel met with counsel to the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but not with the Committee itself.)

None of those meetings were noticed publicly. I was not informed. I was not given the opportunity to be a party to the proceedings.

It seems that the House Ethics Panel has a closed-door policy.

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I wrote a letter

On Sunday, I wrote a letter to Rep. David Deen, chair of the House Ethics Panel. I requested a review of Rep. Adam Greshin’s activities surrounding H.40, the RESET renewable energy bill. Greshin had proposed an amendment to freeze funding for Efficiency Vermont, and has vigorously campaigned for its adoption in both the House and Senate.

Greshin is co-owner of the Sugarbush ski resort. As I previously noted in this space:

The ski industry is a voracious consumer of electricity.

Efficiency Vermont is funded by ratepayers, with rates approved by the Public Service Board.

Do I need to connect those dots?

If the Greshin amendment is adopted, his ski resort stands to save a pretty penny on its utility bills. It’s already passed the House; it’s now pending before the Senate.

Potential conflicts abound in a citizen Legislature, and there’s a sizable gray area. The single act of voting for a bill, in my mind, is not in itself grounds for a conflict investigation.

But Greshin’s case is a whole different kettle of fish for two reasons.

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Ethics, shmethics: Legislative edition

Maybe it’s my inner flatlander, accustomed to the sometimes shady dealings in other states’ politics, but I get even more cynical than usual on the subject of ethics in the legislature.

The subject comes to mind today because of Paul Heintz’ excellent column in this week’s Seven Days, which chronicles the fitful, woefully inadequate first steps of the newly minted House Ethics Panel.

Until now, as Heintz reports, “Vermont was one of just 10 states without any sort of internal legislative ethics committee empowered to investigate potential wrongdoing… [and] remains one of just eight states without an external ethics commission.” (Emphasis his.)

The House panel barely qualifies as an overseer of ethics. Its chair, David Deen, hopes to keep investigations secret “to protect from public embarrassment those who are wrongly accused.”

Oh, that’s nice. We wouldn’t want one of our public servants to suffer embarrassment. What say we apply the same standard to court cases? If a lawmaker needs to be shielded from “public embarrassment” over an ethical matter, how much worse is the potential embarrassment of, say, a charge of murder?

I’d also remind the good Representative of something that often gets lost under the Golden Dome of Silence: these people work for us, and should be answerable to us. If that includes the occasional “public embarrassment,” well, tough.

The purest form of insular Statehouse sentiment comes from the Senate, which remains blissfully unencumbered by any sort of ethics committee. President Pro Tem John Campbell assures us that “Vermont is one of the cleanest states.”

No way to prove that, of course.  Not without an ethics panel. Which we don’t need, because John Campbell says so.

I really don’t know if Vermont is a particularly clean state. We certainly have our share of public corruption, especially in situations where no one is on guard — such as the numerous cases of embezzlement by small-town officials or the odd drug addict overseeing a police evidence storage room.

Most of our public servants do have good intentions and work hard for very little reward, but there’s a whole lot of potential for ethical violations baked into our system. Lawmakers routinely cast votes that have an effect on their non-legislative work. They spend a substantial amount of time with lobbyists, and many friendships result. (Campbell is, I’ve been told, best buds with one of the top Black Hats in town.) They depend heavily on those lobbyists for political contributions and for policy advice, since all but the top leaders have no staff support.

To some extent, Vermont has some measure of protection from serious scandal because it’s such a small place. But in other ways, our smallness makes us more vulnerable. Example: the Colchester Police Department brusquely dismissed initial complaints about Tyler Kinney because, well, he was One Of Us and couldn’t possibly have been a thief and addict who compromised countless criminal investigations.

Except he was.

There may be no big undiscovered scandals at the Statehouse, but there is a faintly rancid smell about the clubbiness of the place. It could use the occasional blast of fresh air. And we could use an ethics panel with independence, transparency, and a good sharp set of teeth.