- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos called Wednesday for the establishment of a state ethics commission to review complaints about conflicts of interest, the ethics of public officials and financial disclosures.

“The time has come for Vermont to enact a clear law regarding ethics, conflicts of interest, and financial disclosure for our elected officials,” Condos, a former state senator now in his third two-year term as secretary of state, wrote in an op-ed column for publication in Vermont newspapers Wednesday.

“The time has come to create an independent ethics commission to address complaints from the legislative, executive, and municipal sections of government,” he wrote.

Condos’s proposal comes amid concerns raised about the conduct of various public officials:

- A special investigative panel is reviewing complaints made in April by state Republican Party Vice Chairman Brady Toensing that Democratic Attorney General William Sorrell had violated state campaign finance laws in several instances. Sorrell has denied any wrongdoing.

- Republican Sen. Norman McAllister was arrested on sex charges May 7 outside the Statehouse. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual assault and prohibited acts. He’s accused of demanding sex in exchange for rent and assaulting women who worked on his dairy farm.

- The Burlington weekly newspaper Seven Days reported that Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell worked to fund a new deputy prosecutor’s position in Windsor County, and then was given that job.

- In 2013, Gov. Peter Shumlin came under fire for the bargain purchase of the property of a neighbor in East Montpelier who was described as intellectually limited. Shumlin agreed to reverse the deal after negative publicity about the purchase.

“These complaints cross all party lines,” Condos wrote. “The Secretary of State’s office receives calls almost every week about municipal officials, alleging conflicts of interest and other ethically suspect actions. With no authority for the Secretary of State to investigate or enforce these complaints, these citizens come away from the process feeling frustrated, helpless and increasingly cynical.”

Condos said in an interview that he believed most Vermont elected officials are honest and work hard for the public good. But when there are concerns, “there’s no place for anybody to go,” he said.

House Speaker Shap Smith said Wednesday that Condos’ proposal for an ethics review commission is worth considering.

“People want to have confidence that (government officials) are observing conflict of interest rules and are doing things that are ethical and I think there’s some concern whether they have the appropriate outlet to address those concerns,” the speaker said.

The Vermont House created an internal ethics committee this past session, and the chairwoman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, Democratic Sen. Jeanette White of Windham, has said the Senate is likely to consider following suit next year.

Smith also noted that the existence of a state ethics commission doesn’t guarantee superior ethics. When state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver of New York, which has a Joint Commission on Public Ethics, was indicted in January on charges that he had taken millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks, a federal prosecutor labeled Albany “a caldron of corruption.”

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