Vermont is one of three states that does not require public officials to disclose financial information, and it is one of eight states that does not have an ethics commission, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
While ethics policies are standard elsewhere, state officials have long maintained such rules aren’t necessary because Vermont has a citizen Legislature that is unusually accessible to the public.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, disagrees with the conventional wisdom.
“Just because our state is small, and we’re very accessible to our constituents doesn’t mean that transparency and accountability are there,” Scheuermann said. “I’m not accusing anyone of anything but I think it’s important. Even the perception of a conflict of interest can be reality. In politics, perception is reality. That perception or true conflict should be considered.”
Scheuermann wants to see the General Assembly adopt guidelines for ethical behavior that would establish strict rules of conduct for lawmakers, statewide officeholders and appointed officials. Her bill, H.846, also includes the formation of a Vermont Ethics Commission.
H.846, is sponsored by 23 other lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, and it is modeled after a proposal floated by Campaign for Vermont, a 501c4 advocacy group that has been critical of the Democratically controlled Legislature.
Scheuermann’s bill would address the “revolving door” phenomenon in which state officials leave public office to lobby on behalf of unions and corporations, or work for the very entities they once regulated. Several recent examples include Vince Illuzzi, the longtime senator from Essex County who lobbied for the Vermont State Employees Association nine months after he left office, and Karen Marshall, who led the governor’s ConnectVT initiative and then left to work for VTel, a broadband company in Springfield.
Under the proposal, an official who has served as an elected official or appointee would be restricted from appearing before the Legislature for a two-year period.
Certain conduct for current officeholders and appointees would also be prohibited, including: use of a position to secure special privileges; personal use of state property; any action taken in which the official has a conflict of interest; actions that “materially advance” the interests of a potential employer; the solicitation of favors, gifts or trips; and stock trades or business transactions based on privileged information gained from service in the Legislature.
An official who is charged with regulating a company would not be allowed to conduct business with that entity.
The policy would apply equally to representatives, agency secretaries, appointees of the governor and the governor himself. Though Gov. Peter Shumlin signed an executive branch order establishing a code of conduct it applies only to appointees of the governor.
H.846 also creates a five-member Vermont Ethics Commission that would have the authority to investigate violation complaints, complete with subpoena power. The commission’s findings would not be subject to Vermont’s Public Records Act. Annual reports about the number of complaints and investigations would be made available to the public.
The civil penalty for violating the code of conduct would be as much as $10,000 per violation. An official would also be responsible for reasonable attorneys fees associated with enforcement.
Scheuermann says this component of the bill is important because currently when there is a question about conduct in the Statehouse there is no one to go to. “If we did think there was some impropriety or something not above board there’s no place to go to say anything or have an inquiry,” Scheuermann said.
The financial disclosure language in the draft now circulating in the House Government Operations Committee is not likely to survive the cutting room floor. Scheuermann says she doesn’t oppose pulling the provision, which currently requires all officials to disclose the name of their business or employer, assets of more than $5,000, and the source of any income that exceeds $30,000.
“It’s a part-time Legislature, it’s a citizen Legislature, we have a difficult time recruiting people to do this kind of job,” Scheuermann said. “I don’t want to make it so really qualified people wouldn’t run.”
Rep. Donna Sweaney, D-Springfield, chair of Government Operations, hopes to move a proposal forward this session, though she is concerned that the Senate will be less inclined to take it up, and there isn’t a clear signal that the governor would endorse legislation. It may be more effective, she says, to adopt new House rules.