Tag Archives: Jeanette White

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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Windham Dems Quickly Dispose of Hot Potato

At a meeting Monday, the Windham County Democratic Committee disposed of a resolution calling for new leadership in the state party. Instead, the panel approved the drafting of a letter expressing concern over an alleged embezzlement of party funds and appreciation for actions taken by party leaders to prevent any recurrence.

The resolution was drafted by county party chair John Hagen after consultation with other officers in the organization. The meeting was attended by 23 party members, including almost every Democratic lawmaker from Windham County. If there had been any momentum in favor of the resolution, the air exited the balloon when Hagen told the meeting that, about an hour before the meeting began, he had received an email from state party chair Terje Anderson providing a full history of the embezzlement case and outlining new steps the party was taking in response. In the email, Hagen said, Anderson “addresses every part of the resolution.”

Nice timing, that. If Anderson sought to influence the proceedings with a last-ditch plea, it’s fair to say he succeeded.

The resolution was in response to alleged embezzlement of more than $18,000 in state party funds by former staffer Brandon Batham. (The Vermont Democratic Party has requested a criminal investigation by the Montpelier Police Department, and is conducting an audit going back three years to be sure that no more irregularities are hiding in the weeds.) It called for a new slate of state party officers to be presented at the party’s reorganization meeting on November 16, citing concerns about management oversight and the scandal’s potential effect on fundraising.

No one spoke in favor of the resolution, although several attendees had been involved in creating it. Most were mollified by Anderson’s late email — even though they had yet to actually see it.

“I wasn’t expecting the resolution to pass,” said Hagen after the meeting. “The intent was to throw a rock in the water and see what came up to the surface.”

That rock produced a tidal wave of retreat from the resolution. The most vociferous opponent was Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who characterized party leaders as “a bunch of volunteers doing the best they can,” she said. “In my mind, they have revised and updated their procedures. This resolution just fuels the flames.” She advocated putting the affair behind them and turning the party’s attention on the 2020 election campaign.

Committee member Andy Burrows of Guilford noted that before Batham was hired on party staff, he had been chair of the Windham Democrats — and had not performed well. “We worked with him for a long time,” Burrows said. “He was a shifty sort of guy. We should ;have said Batham was not appropriate for the party job.”

Afterward, Burrows elaborated on his statement, noting that he questioned Batham’s work ethic, not his probity. “He volunteered for many tasks, but he did very little,” Burrows said of Batham. “We wouldn’t have recommended him. And [the party] didn’t ask.”

Which ought to raise questions about the thoroughness of the Vermont Democratic Party’s hiring process in addition to its financial oversight. But I digress.

2016 gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel spoke against the resolution. “When embezzlement happens, it’s not always the fault of leadership,” she said. Rather than suggesting a new slate, she advised allowing the reorganization process to play out.

Several committee members expressed a desire to meet with Anderson directly before considering the resolution. Rep. Mike Mrowicki (D-Putney) moved to table the resolution. “We’re nowhere near consensus,” he said.

White even objected to tabling; she wanted the county committee to immediately drop the matter. “We should send a nice letter saying we appreciate the work being done on new procedures,” White said. She added that “We shouldn’t judge Brandon. I don’t know what’s going on with him. I don’t think he’s a bad guy.”

Of course, the resolution didn’t judge Batham at all; it focused on the potential failings of responsible leaders. But whatever.

“We should send a thoughtful letter stating that we’re glad to hear they’re working on new procedures, and asking them to come down and talk to us about it,” said Burrows.

White objected to that as well, saying she didn’t want to take the time for more talk. “We should thank [leadership] for taking this seriously, and let the reorganization process go ahead,” White said.

At that point, committee members deferred to White. Her resolution, calling for a thankful letter and nothing more, was approved on a unanimous voice vote.

Members of the Windham County committee clearly felt uncomfortable expressing any real questions about party leadership, especially on the eve of the 2020 election season. But this is probably not the end of Anderson’s troubles. Many committee members expect robust debate at the VDP’s state committee meeting on September 21. Hagen noted that he had talked with other county chairs, and found that many were still actively concerned about the Batham case and its effect on fundraising.

And even in the absence of an actual call for change in leadership, the incumbent officeholders are likely to face sharp questions — at the very least — at the reorganization meeting on November 16.

 

You can’t blame the ethics issue on the media

Jeanette White never wanted ethics reform.

The Putney Democrat and chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee made that clear, over and over again. And she blamed a tried-and-true scapegoat for bringing it up:

The issue of ethics and the lack of an ethics commission has been of great interest over the last year or so to the media. How many Vermonters are passionate about the issue is not clear…

Which was obvious bulldookie at the time. But now I’ve got evidence from an unexpected source.

Researchers at Illinois State University have been involved in a lengthy study of corruption in state politics. They took an unusual approach: seeking the perceptions of reporters covering state politics and corruption issues. They reasoned that corruption cases are handled differently in different states, so rates of indictment and conviction might be grossly misleading. Just because, for instance, New York has pursued several high-profile cases doesn’t mean its politics are more corrupt than, say, New Jersey’s. Perception-based studies have their own limitations, but it’s a different way to evaluate what’s going on.

Turns out that in Vermont, reporters see the state as fundamentally clean, untainted by political sleaze. Vermont ranked near the top in most categories, and overall was one of the “cleanest” states in the country in the eyes of our own allegedly cynical media corps.

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A little prayer for ethics reform

Ah, Ethics Commission, we hardly knew ye.

Vermont will remain one of a handful of states whose politicians are unburdened by an ethics watchdog. The final benediction was pronounced Tuesday by House leaders, but the fatal blow had been struck in the Senate.

Well, not a blow, actually. The cause of death was slow and methodical.

A bill to establish a state Ethics Commission was shackled to the stone walls of a windowless chamber somewhere beneath the Senate. The cryptkeeper was Jeanette White, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who openly questioned the need for any ethical oversight at all.

Senate Bill 184 was permitted barely enough gruel and water to survive. Over time, its muscles atrophied and it became a mere shadow of itself. Its teeth and claws were extracted, just to make sure it could never do any damage.

And finally,  at the end of last week, after months of captivity, it was paraded across the hallway, shambling, emaciated, wincing at its first glimpse of sunlight since January. By then, it was too far gone to revive. Not that the House put much effort into it.

Rest In Peace, S. 184.

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As if we needed more evidence that Jeanette White doesn’t get it…

State Sen. Jeanette White (D-Stockholm Syndrome) penned an opinion column in the Brattleboro Observer last week concerning the Senate’s timid, occasional, mincing steps toward some kind of ethics commission. We’ll get to the self-serving (and self-pitying) rhetoric in a moment; but first, she shared a detail about the proposed State Ethics Commission that I hadn’t seen before.

The duties of the commission/director will be to give advisory opinions on question of potential ethical issues to anyone who requests. These will be kept confidential.

(Ahem.)

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

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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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Welcome aboard, Governor

Seemingly out of nowhere today, Governor Shumlin threw his support behind the idea of an independent state Ethics Commission. The idea’s gotten a lot of push in recent months, thanks to a string of public-sector embarrassments including (but not limited to) Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s squicky relationships with big national law firms, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell’s landing a state job after he’d lobbied for its creation, the revelation that longtime lawmaker Norm McAllister is (allegedly) a felony-class sleazeball, and most recently, Brent Raymond’s overnight transformation from EB-5 regulator to EB-5 project manager.

So congratulations, Governor, for finally seeing the bright, glaring, blinding light.

His spokesperson Scott Coriell claims, according to VTDigger, that “Wednesday was the first time, to his knowledge, that the governor had been asked whether he supports such a commission.”

That might be true in the narrowest of senses. But until now, Shumlin has been down on the general idea of tougher ethics standards, insisting that we’re all good Vermonters, we all know each other, and we’re above this sort of tawdry behavior. But hey, better late than never.

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