This column is about a bill that will not pass this session. But the problem that this bill was originally designed to address in some way will still be with us, and future action will be needed.
Vermont does not have clear and comprehensive ethics rules and laws to regulate conflicts of interest and to ensure that special interests do not have undue influence on state officials and legislators. We do not have effective ways to investigate and enforce such provisions even if we had them. But we do have problems. The following quote is from an article entitled "Ethics Schmethics: the Slow Death of Reform in the Senate" by Paul Heintz in the weekly magazine Seven Days published on April 27:
"Cases of unethical behavior: legislators voting on issues involving their employers • law makers working for and even as lobbyists • regulators leaving state government to work for those they regulated • Senate and administration staffers spinning through the revolving door to become lobbyists • office holders hitting up state contractors and lobbyists for campaign donations • an attorney general soliciting free travel from those with business before the state • and a no-bid state contractor offering the governor's daughter a job. And now there's what WCAX-TV has dubbed "Kingdom Con": Federal and state authorities have accused two politically connected developers, Jay Peak's Ariel Quiros and Bill Stenger, of perpetrating a $200 million "Ponzilike" scheme with money they raised through the federal EB-5 investor visa program. For years, lawmakers of both parties helped Stenger court investors abroad, collected tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations and overlooked signs that something was amiss."
Mr. Heintz also notes that last year Attorney General Bill Sorrell faced accusations that he hired a campaign donor to file suit on behalf of the state and Senator Norm McAllister was arrested on sexual assault charges.
Taken altogether, you would think that these problems would be enough to spur effective legislative action to protect the interests of Vermonters and to ensure that government officials ARE not corrupt and do not even APPEAR corrupt. You would think so, but you would be wrong.
The bill S.184 has passed the Senate and is resting uncomfortably in the House Committee on Government Operations. No action will be taken by the House at this late stage of the session, so the bill will die, and it is not clear if the bill was even worth passing since it does so little. It would have set up an Ethics Commission to investigate ethics complaints and then refer the results to the Attorney General or the Human Resources Department, who already have the authority to investigate possible violations. But it does not close the revolving door between the executive and legislative branches and lobbying firms and private corporations.
There are many dimensions to the ethics issue, but the biggest problem that I have seen is, in fact, that revolving door. I think it is wrong for the chair of a House committee or a member of House leadership to take a job with a corporation immediately after having had jurisdiction over or influence on the regulation of that corporation. I think it is wrong for an agency official responsible for regulating an industry to leave to take a job in that industry. I have seen these things happen, and I believe that I have seen damage to the interests of ordinary Vermonters from this kind of coziness.
So I think that the first step is to ban this kind of revolving door. I also think that we should require greater financial disclosure of those serving in statewide offices and of members of the legislature. I would think that we would not need to set up a special commission to enforce these provisions, but rather could use the Attorney General, the Department of Human Resources, or the Secretary of State as places to file complaints about violations as appropriate.
Once we have taken those steps, we could consider whether we also need a free-standing ethics commission with investigatory and enforcement powers. In general, I am reluctant to create new commissions or boards because of the additional complexity and expense, this is one that might be worth doing.
I hope that the Legislature can return to this issue next year. Vermonters deserve the best possible service from their government, and the best possible representation from legislators and elected officials. Self-dealing, conflicts of interest, undue influence by special interests, and other such ethical violations have no place in good government.
Cynthia Browning is a state representative to the Legislature for the district which includes Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate.
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