Tag Archives: public corruption

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.

Jim Douglas accuses Governor Shumlin of public corruption

The most dramatic moment of Saturday’s gubernatorial debate had nothing to do with the 2014 campaign or the positions of the four candidates. Instead, it came at about the 36-minute mark, when moderator Mark Johnson asked Governor Shumlin about a passage from former Governor Jim Douglas’ memoir, “The Vermont Way.”

Here is the direct quotation from Douglas’ book, as read by Johnson:

“The Senate leader, who succeeded me in the governorship, was a strong proponent of gay marriage. Since he was nominated by a scant 200 votes in the Democratic primary, their support may well have provided the margin of victory. He later reciprocated by appointing one of the leading lobbyists of the movement to the Vermont Supreme Court.”

Am I the only one who is shocked by that?

Jim Douglas is accusing Peter Shumlin of public corruption at the highest level — of giving away a seat on our state’s highest court as part of a political deal. By doing so, he implies that the recipient of Shumlin’s putative largesse, Beth Robinson, is unqualified to be on the Court.

Jim Douglas has said repeatedly that he isn’t in the business of criticizing his successor. He sure has a funny way of showing it.

Not only did Douglas think this, not only did he say it — he committed it to writing in his own official account of his years in office. (His editor/publisher, Democratic State Senator Chris Bray, allowed it to stand. What was he thinking?)

This is despicable, and Douglas deserves full criticism for it. And it is certainly not, in the words of his self-aggrandizing title, “The Vermont Way.”

Funny thing, though: Every media outlet in the state produced stories about the Douglas memoir. As far as I know, not a single one mentioned this passage, in which Jim Douglas accuses Peter Shumlin of public corruption. A crime.

Mark Johnson was the first, and only, media person to report this.

Most of the media accounts of the Douglas memoir (aside from Paul Heintz’ hard-hitting review in Seven Days) were softball affairs. They sorta mentioned Douglas’ long-held grudges against the media, but otherwise downplayed anything that might be controversial or reflect badly on Douglas. That is a remarkable failure by our watchdogs of the Fourth Estate.

By the way, the other three candidates for Governor recognized a white-hot potato when they saw it. None expressed the tiniest bit of criticism for Shumlin or Robinson. They all, including Republican Scott Milne, backed away from the question as fast as they could. None even mentioned the name “Jim Douglas.” A wise choice.