Sens. Peg Flory, Phil Baruth, Dick Mazza and John Campbell meet Thursday with Senate Secretary John Bloomer.
Updated at 3:44 p.m.
A week after suspending one of their own colleagues, Vermont Senate leaders met Thursday afternoon to consider the creation of an internal ethics panel charged with reviewing allegations against sitting senators.
The establishment of such a panel was one of three changes to the body's rules drafted by Senate Secretary John Bloomer and presented Thursday afternoon to the five-member Senate Rules Committee. The other proposals would require members to publicly disclose certain information about their employment and board service and would require interns, aides and other employees to register with the Sergeant at Arms' office.
The debate over forming an ethics panel long preceded last week's suspension of Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin) over alleged sex crimes. But according to Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell (D-Windsor), the situation made it clear that the Senate lacked a "venue in which to deal with certain issues that you would hope did not arise, but clearly do."
Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland), who serves with Campbell on the rules committee, agreed.
"I think it's good to get ground rules set. I wish we had done this years ago," she said. "I remember last week [during the McAllister debate] stating, at the very least, let's take this as a call to set something up."
The specifics of the "ground rules" are still up for debate. The committee took no action Thursday and agreed to meet next week for further discussion. The full Senate would have to sign off on any changes to its rules.
Bloomer's recommendations were based, in part, on those adopted by the House in May 2014. Under the secretary's proposal, a five-member ethics panel would have the power to review, investigate and hold confidential hearings on allegations against a senator of "an ethical violation pertaining to the Vermont Constitution or Senate Rules." The panel could dismiss the charges, privately reprimand the accused or recommend a more serious disciplinary action to the full Senate.
The second proposed rules change would require senators to file a form at the start of the legislative biennium disclosing the name of any employers or "boards, commissions or other entities on which the senator serves." Senators would also have to reveal whether they were being paid for such service, though not how much.
The third proposal was more directly tied to the McAllister situation. It would require "all interns, aides, employees and/or legislative assistants of a senator, whether paid or unpaid" to register. The sergeant at arms would be charged with informing such employees of the Senate's sexual harassment policy. Among those who accused McAllister of sexual assault was a young woman who worked for him at the Statehouse last winter as an assistant or intern.
Rules committee members sounded amenable to the proposals during Thursday’s meeting, though several suggested they might seek changes. Flory wondered whether senators should also be required to disclose financial information pertaining to members of their households. And Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) questioned whether they should disclose ownership stakes in companies.
“I’m just thinking, in terms of conflicts of interest, that’s a more likely conflict than serving on a library board,” he said.
After the meeting, Baruth said he generally supported the proposals but thought the financial disclosure rule should be “beefed up.” He said he would also seek to make aspects of the ethics panel’s work more transparent to the public than that of the House Ethics Panel.
“Their procedure is too opaque at certain points,” he said. “Where people have been found to do something wrong —minor or major — the public should be clued in.”
Bloomer also recommended deviations from the House panel’s protocol. He said the Senate panel should avoid treating allegations as formal complaints until it found probable cause. Bloomer pointed to a situation that arose last year when political blogger John Walters filed a complaint against Rep. Adam Greshin (I-Warren), accusing him of a conflict of interest, and subsequently wrote about it. The panel eventually cleared Greshin of wrongdoing.
“What really happens if you start calling those all complaints, I think somebody can play a political game by filing complaints against you,” Bloomer said.
Some outside the Senate believe an internal ethics panel is not the appropriate entity to police lawmakers.
“It’s all well and good, but the fact of the matter is: We’re trying to build trust with the public,” said Secretary of State Jim Condos. “Is the public going to have trust that an internal committee can handle it?”
Last May, Condos proposed a much broader, independent ethics commission. Its staff members would field complaints concerning not only the legislature, but also the executive branch and municipal governments. Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) and Rep. Donna Sweaney (D-Windsor) recently introduced their own ethics commission proposals, though neither is quite as broad as Condos’. The proposals range in cost from $370,000 to $500,000.
White said Tuesday that she has “mixed feelings” about the broader commission, arguing that legislators can be trusted with holding one another accountable.
“It’s pretty extensive and pretty expensive,” she said. “And I’m not sure that when we’re dealing with a big [budget] deficit that setting up a new commission … makes sense.”
The Senate Rules Committee, which has a long history of meeting secretly, held Thursday's discussion behind closed doors in the Senate Cloakroom. Seven Days has repeatedly asked to be informed of such meetings and was told about it in advance by a member. Bloomer posted public notice of the meeting Thursday morning on the legislature's website, just hours before it took place. One other reporter, from the Burlington Free Press, attended.