Couple’s jobs warrant ethical considerations

Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, holds up a photo of fracking. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, holds up a photo of fracking at a January hearing. Photo by Andrew Stein/VTDigger

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).

Alyssa Schuren, deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation. ANR photo

Alyssa Schuren, deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation. ANR photo

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.

Alicia Freese


  1. Patrick Cashman :

    “Gov. Peter Shumlin said Schuren’s character should rule out speculation about conflicts of interest.”

    Wow. Just…wow. Does the Governor think that those who would use their position to benefit their family are somehow clearly labelled and tagged? While the Governor spouts “Trust me, nothing to see here, move along” he is placing the spouse of the Executive Director of one of the most powerful activist groups in the state in a position to aid that organization. Paul Burns makes almost $100k per year in compensation from VPIRG, and with that nice salary comes the incentive to exploit every possible avenue to advance his group’s goals.
    The Governor’s glib assurances aside, Ms. Schuren needs to recuse herself completely from any matter that bears or has potential impact on her husband’s lucrative business.
    From the Executive Branch code of ethics:
    ““Appearance of a conflict of interest” as used below in §§ III (A) (2) and (7) means the impression that a reasonable person might have, after full disclosure of the facts, that an appointee’s judgment might be significantly influenced by outside interests, even though there is no actual conflict of interest.”
    And – ““Conflict of interest” means a significant interest, of an appointee or such an interest, known to the appointee, of a member of his or her immediate family or household or of a business associate, in the outcome of any particular matter pending before the appointee or his or her public body.”

    And more importantly from Article 7 of our state Constitution: “That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community, and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single person, family, or set of persons, who are a part only of that community…”

  2. David Usher :

    Close relationships do not serve the common good when tough decisions are required.

  3. Kristin Sohlstrom :

    This is the second story that’s come out with this type of work relationship. Not good, folks. Not good at all.

  4. Eileen Simpson :

    I don’t know what’s more appalling: the original story or the cro-magnon comments on it. (“Not good at all”). Historically, these “conflict of interest” arguments were used to keep women, wives, from being hired in the first place &/or advancing in their profession. Over the last 30 years professions have already dealt with the issue of married couples in the workplace and found no inherent conflict nor any legitimate reason to assume one. The legal profession in particular put this issue to bed in the late 1970s when courts and ethics bodies throughout the United States ruled that each party had ethical obligations and that no one was entitled to assume that either party to the marriage would violate those ethical obligations by virtue of marriage. No doubt Vermont’s ethical rules are similar for persons like the 2 who are the subject of this article and reflect the appropriate standard. In many states any different rule would constitute sex discrimination or marital discrimination, something your reporter might want to look into sometime.

    Your reporter (female, but gaining no credibility for her article from her gender) would do well to “investigate” a bit of history and context and provide some proof of how the parties handled this issue within the article itself. As it is, the only “story” here is the existence of a marriage between talented people in related fields. Reporting a fear of “conflict of interest” on the basis of marriage is old beyond belief and unworthy of respect.

    As for what the facts really are, I note that this story came out on July 4 – a holiday – and how none of the principles ‘could be reached for comment’. Forgive my suspicious mind but I have to ask whether the principles were asked for comment prior to the holiday weekend, and if so how much before. If the reporter asked for comment immediately prior to or on the 4th — that is cynically crass and she should be castigated for running with this ‘story’ before she had provided opportunity for meaningful input on the substance of how the parties themselves had addressed potential conflicts related to their marriage.

    As things stand, the possibility certainly exists that the parties to this story took the appropriate professional steps to identify and address any relevant issues prior to the article and that the reporter simply failed to investigate or provide adequate opportunity for comment — and that there is no story here beyond the invitation to take a trip down memory lane to the land of discrimination. Vtdigger did an entirely inadequate job of presenting something to the public that was worthy of expression of an ethical concern. Rather, they issued a report framed in a way that has a long history in gender discrimination: these people are married and there’s got to be an issue here. Wrong.

    Unless, of course, the reporter believes — contrary to 30 years of professional evaluation of this type of issue by many different professional bodies — that married people should be automatically limited in their professional opportunities and viewed with suspicion. Shame on her if she does. Shame on her if she ‘only’ wrote an article that invited others to draw that conclusion on their own. Women fought this fight 30 years ago and some of us are unwilling to quietly tolerate having it come up again.



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