Paul Burns and Alyssa Schuren are both in the business of protecting Vermont’s environment, but the married couple now is one-part private and one-part public.
The pair worked together at the environmental advocacy organization Environment America, where Burns still holds a position in addition to his job as VPIRG’s executive director. Schuren crossed over to state government in April, when she was hired as the deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz said safeguards have been established to prevent relations between the different entities from becoming too cozy. The DEC is part of the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR).
The DEC issues environmental permits, regulates solid and hazardous wastes, oversees pollution programs and monitors air and water quality.
VPIRG, the Vermont branch of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, is a nonprofit consumer and environmental advocacy organization. In recent years, its environmental advocacy has focused on promoting renewable energy, working to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, reducing waste, and regulating toxic chemical use. Environment America also focuses on renewable energy and conservation efforts.
The DEC did not issue a news release when Schuren was hired (Markowitz said ANR doesn’t generally make public announcement for deputy commissioners), but an internal memo outlined Schuren’s environmental credentials:
“Alyssa is an expert in organizational leadership and change and is the right person to help us work through the challenges of improving DEC’s operations and internal management systems. She brings a demonstrated commitment to public service and is joining us due to her interest in assisting the department achieve our mission to protect and enhance the quality of Vermonters’ lives through protection of the environment. Some of you may know Alyssa from her time as Executive Director of the Toxics Action Center. Since leaving Toxics Action, Alyssa has served as the development director for Environment America.”
Burns, according to the VPIRG website, “serves as the senior advocate for all programs and lead advocate for our democracy program, represents the organization with the media and state leaders, heads our fundraising efforts and provides overall vision, direction and leadership for the organization.” At Environment America, Burns is the New England regional program director; Schuren previously served as its development director.
The pair married in September 2009. Neither Schuren nor Burns could be reached for comment.
Gov. Peter Shumlin said Schuren’s character should rule out speculation about conflicts of interest.
“Alyssa is an extraordinary employee,” Shumlin said. “She’s a very independent thinker. I know her well. She’s a friend of mine, and if anyone believes that anyone, including her husband, is telling her what he thinks she should do and therefore she does it, I think that’s both unfair and unjust.”
Vermont doesn’t have a state ethics commission. Individual agencies define their own policies.
“Let’s remember that all of our employees in state government, that many of them are often married and they take their jobs and their oaths seriously and they do their jobs with objectivity based upon what they were hired to do.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin
Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington compiles a lists of state-based watchdogs that keep tabs on ethics in state government. Vermont has three — the currently defunct Common Cause, VPIRG and the League of Women Voters of Vermont.
Markowitz said ANR has plenty of experience with staff whose spouses are stakeholders in the issues they address. In fact, Schuren’s direct superior, DEC Commissioner David Mears, has had to sidestep a number of potential conflicts of interest. According to Markowitz, Mears has recused himself from relicensing decisions that involve hydroelectric dams along the Connecticut River because his brother-in-law works on the projects. The Burlington Free Press reported in 2011 on several other permitting decisions Mears sat out because of his prior work at Vermont Law School.
ANR has a policy of “creating a transparent separation,” Markowitz said. For Schuren, there was a two-part process — first, she was vetted through an “ethics background check” by the governor’s general counsel. (The executive branch has a code of ethics.) After Schuren was hired, she outlined her strategy for avoiding conflicts of interest. That memo is currently under review by the Human Resources Department.
Markowitz said no conflicts have arisen thus far, and she expects recusals will be rare in Schuren’s case.
Still, it’s not far-fetched to expect Burns’ work at VPIRG and Environment America to intersect with Schuren’s at the DEC. Both VPIRG and Environment America have fought changes to the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line that could facilitate the transportation of tar sands oil through New England. If that project were to apply for a permit from the DEC, Schuren would recuse herself, Markowitz said.
Schuren is somewhat buffered from potential ethical gray areas, Markowitz said, because she deals primarily with internal operations, overseeing financial and personnel systems.
Peggy Kerns, director of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Center for Ethics in Government, said she didn’t see any inherent conflicts of interest in the relationship. However, it would be problematic if Shuren was in a position to award grants or contracts to VPIRG, Kerns said.
The DEC occasionally contracts work to environmental organizations in the state, but Markowitz said she doesn’t think VPIRG has been a beneficiary in the past, and Schuren wouldn’t be involved if it became one in the future.
Kerns also pointed to the importance of avoiding the perception of a conflict of interest.
“A lot of times it’s the appearance of impropriety. If reasonable people in public think that’s too cozy of an alignment, it can be a problem.”
If Burns and Shuren were both to testify in front of a legislative committee on the same issue, that might give off the impression of excessive coziness, Kerns said.
Markowitz said ANR policy precludes that. Schuren won’t serve as a DEC spokesperson when its work on a particular issue overlaps with that of VPIRG.
When asked about what precautions had been taken to avoid a conflicts of interest in cases like Schuren’s, Shumlin responded, “Vermont is a small state and we operate with integrity.” State government employees, Shumlin said, avoid conflicts of interest of their own accord. “Let’s remember that all of our employees in state government, that many of them are often married and they take their jobs and their oaths seriously and they do their jobs with objectivity based upon what they were hired to do.”
The governor also noted that he’s observed a trend in the inquiries about professional ethics in state government — “I’m always puzzled that it’s usually asked about women and not men.”
Burns and Schuren are in good company — in March 2012, Seven Days published a (gender-balanced) roundup of nine other prominent Vermont couples whose work has been intertwined at times.