MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - A state Senate committee is about done with its work on a bill to create a new state ethics commission, but there are challenges. Among them: The commission wouldn’t have any authority over the ethics of lawmakers.
Key legislators say the state Constitution requires that the Legislature police itself and not delegate that authority to any other part of government.
“The (state) Constitution says the Legislature shall judge its own members and that that power cannot be delegated; nor can it be taken by another branch of government,” said Rep. David Deen, a Democrat who chairs the House Ethics Panel.
Aside from the constitutional issues, there appears to be a lack of enthusiasm among some key lawmakers for the idea of a new commission to oversee the ethics of public officials.
Asked why the legislation to do so was important, Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham and chairwoman of the Government Operations Committee, said, “Because the press keeps saying that we’re the only state without an ethics commission and clearly we have something to hide … I don’t really believe that.”
Forty-two states have ethics commissions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, so Vermont is not the only state that doesn’t have one. Not all states that have one are models of ethical propriety: New York has an ethics commission, and since 2000 more than 30 New York lawmakers have left office following criminal or ethical allegations. Last year, the leaders of the Senate and the Assembly were convicted of federal corruption charges.
White said a lack of faith in government officials and bureaucrats “has leaked over into Vermont.”
“Whether we have issues or not, the perception out there is that we do,” White said.
Among ethical controversies in Vermont within the past two years:
- Democratic Attorney General William Sorrell taking campaign donations from a law firm around the time the state contracted with that firm to help represent it in a lawsuit against companies accused of pollution.
- Republican state committee Chairman David Sunderland chastising the Democratic governor for promoting Alyssa Schuren from deputy commissioner to commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation. Schuren’s husband, Paul Burns, is executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which frequently advocates on issues in which Schuren’s department is involved.
- Republican gubernatorial candidate and Lt. Gov. Phil Scott acknowledging that his company is contracting with the state on public works projects amounting to $3.8 million in the past 15 years, according to media reports by VTDigger and the Vermont Press Bureau.
- Brent Raymond, former head of the Vermont office that managed the federal EB5 immigrant investor program in the state, leaving state government to work for a ski resort company seeking $50 million in investment capital through the program.
Democratic Secretary of State James Condos, who has been calling for creation of an ethics commission, said the bill was a “great first step” but lacked key provisions. He said it should cover municipal officials but doesn’t.
The new five-member commission would have a part-time executive director. Condos said more resources are needed.
While the legislation can’t touch sitting legislators, White said, it would require candidates for legislative and executive branch offices and executive branch officials to file financial disclosure forms listing income sources generating more than $10,000 a year. Ex-lawmakers are barred from lobbying for a year after they leave office.
The bill would create a new code of conduct for executive branch officials. White said her committee would recommend that House and Senate ethics panels adopt parallel rules.
Deen said the House Ethics Panel would consider suggestions, but, “It would take some real convincing for me because I believe that our disclosure requirements and our ethics standards are of the highest level. And I’m not sure that anything in the Senate bill, or any bill for that matter, is going to make us better at what we do.”
The legislation is expected to be before the Senate this coming week.
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