Charges traded at heated Senate ethics meeting

John Campbell

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell addresses lawmakers on the opening day of the 2016 legislative session. Photo by Roger Crowley/VTDigger

A meeting of senators trying to develop ethics standards ended abruptly Wednesday after an accusation-laced blowup over what financial information should be disclosed.

The sudden breakup of the Senate Rules Committee meeting capped a testy, finger-pointing exchange between two of the chamber’s leaders, Senate Majority Leader Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, and the Senate President Pro Tem, John Campbell, D-Windsor, who was backed up by veteran and influential Sen. Richard Mazza, D-Grand Isle/Colchester.

The squabble peaked when Baruth felt the other two Democrats were not taking him seriously, while Campbell, who holds the most powerful post, and Mazza, a senator for more than 30 years, were offended and thought Baruth was accusing them of “hiding something.”

The five-member Senate committee is attempting to fashion rules around the establishment of an ethics commission for senators, how allegations would be investigated and when they would be made public, and what personal financial information, if any, they would have to provide so the public could see if any of their votes were to benefit themselves.

The House passed legislation in 2014 setting out how to police its members, including the formation of a five-member ethics commission and how to determine conflicts-of-interest. The House measures require a member to say where they are employed, but do not require information on companies or stocks they own, or how much money they make.

Senate Secretary John Bloomer has been trying to develop Senate language building on the House rules, as well as the Senate’s rules on sexual harassment and, he said, what the Senate may have learned from the recent ousting of one of its own. If approved by the committee, the rules must also pass the full Senate.

The ethics discussion comes two weeks after the suspension of Sen. Norman McAllister, R-Franklin, who has been charged with sexual assault, but policy development was already ongoing. (Bloomer said under the House version, someone charged with a crime would not face ethics charges until their case was adjudicated, which he suggested the Senate should not replicate.)

ethics

At a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee, Senate Secretary John Bloomer, left, talks with Sens. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, Peg Flory, R-Rutland, Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, and John Campbell, D-Windsor. Photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger

Baruth maintained the Senate ethic rules should be stricter and that financial interests should be disclosed. At that point, Campbell and Mazza, along with committee member Peg Flory, R-Rutland, questioned what size a stake would constitute a “financial interest,” whether owning stock in a publicly traded company would count and whether a spouse’s ownership interest would also have to be included on any ethics forms developed.

Baruth was arguing for greater disclosure than Campbell and Mazza wanted, and he thought they were mocking his efforts. Campbell and Mazza objected strongly and said they were worried that having to provide too much information might chill people to serve in a citizen Legislature or in some cases, it was unnecessary.

Baruth said under the proposal the House passed, a member would have to disclose they were on a library commission but would not necessarily have to say whether they had a significant ownership interest in a company that may be affected by legislation.

“The problem being that the public doesn’t have any way of knowing if you don’t disclose companies that you’re making a good deal of money from,” Baruth said, adding the key was to build the confidence of the public.

Flory and Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said a clear definition of what would constitute unethical behavior would help the committee move forward. Flory said “without knowing what any of this would be, my lawyer head says no” on creating an ethics commission.

The otherwise collegial meeting (Baruth asked Bloomer to wait until Campbell, the committee chair, arrived before starting the noontime meeting) started to unravel after Campbell said Senate Rules — and personal integrity — already required members to abstain when they have a conflict of interest in which they could financially gain. Campbell asked whether Baruth was “opening a can of legal (worms),” then appeared to get irritated, asking Baruth point blank “just out of curiosity” if he knew of any senator who was violating the rules.

Baruth said he didn’t and accused Campbell and Mazza of making light of his efforts.

“I hate to say it, what you’re doing is you’re saying is any attempt to tighten up these disclosure things is laughable and it’s not,” Baruth said. “That’s why we’re here. And that’s why…”

“Wait. I didn’t say it’s laughable,” Campbell shot back, then talking over Baruth said. “No, no, don’t. You have reporters here. Do not, Do not…”

Baruth: “Hey!”

Campbell: “say, go there because if it shows that I’m saying that…”

Baruth: “You guys are making light of the idea…”

Campbell and Mazza, voices raised: “We’re not making light of the idea!”

Baruth: “That’s the way I just took the last five minutes.”

Mazza then suggested Baruth come up with a proposal the committee could “abide by” and to “do it accurately.”

Baruth: “I’m suggesting we find language we can agree to, you guys are reluctant to do that…”

Campbell: “No. We’re pointing out things that you should be thinking of, everyone should be thinking of. You’re drafting policy, especially policy that’s going to be…”

Mazza: “You make it sound like we’re hiding something.”

Baruth: “I’m not at all.”

Campbell: “Especially policy that’s going to be in effect for a long period of time…”

Baruth: “John, I understand what you’re saying…”

Campbell: “So, I do take offense to your comments about being lighthearted…”

At which point, Sen Peg Flory jumped in: “I move to adjourn.”

Campbell stopped mid-sentence, scooped up his papers and left.

Afterward, Mazza, spooning down a yogurt, said it was only the second time the committee had met about the ethics commission and that a lot of questions need to be answered.

“We’ve got to do it right,” Mazza said. “We can’t just hurry into something. We want to make sure we’re accountable, we want to make sure we’re honest, we want to make sure we tell the public where we stand on issues, but on the other hand, let’s do it properly.

Asked why the meeting ended abruptly and the flare-up had occurred, Mazza continued: “I don’t know, I mean some questions were brought up. Everyone’s trying to find the right answers and it seemed to me it was looked upon like we were hiding something. We’re not hiding anything.”

Mazza said he was concerned the committee get the language correct because “we’re only going to get so many bites at the apple on this” and the public would lose confidence if future Senates changed the rules.

Baruth said afterward it appeared some on the committee “were uncomfortable with the idea of disclosing that would include their financial holdings.”

“But if you’re going to have a disclosure law and you’re going to talk about entities that are in need of being disclosed, I think your financial entities like companies that you own and control have to be part of that,” Baruth said.

Mazza said he wanted to avoid going overboard and requiring a senator who owns “three shares of Texaco’’ to have to list that on a disclosure form.

Benning said the issue was challenging but he was confident the committee could work through them. He reiterated the discussion would be more productive once the proposals were fleshed out and terms defined.

“We’re talking about things that we’ve never talked about before,” Benning said afterward. “We’re in uncharted waters.”

Mazza dismissed the conflict as a minor dust-up.

“It just got a little exciting, that’s all,” Mazza said with a smile. “It’ll be better next time.”

Mark Johnson

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