Montpeculiar: A Rare Public Spat Between Senate's Top Dems | Off Message

Montpeculiar: A Rare Public Spat Between Senate's Top Dems


Sen. John Campbell and Senate Secretary John Bloomer Wednesday at a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Sen. John Campbell and Senate Secretary John Bloomer Wednesday at a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee
The Vermont Senate's top-ranking Democrats got into a heated argument Wednesday after Majority Leader Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) accused Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell (D-Windham) of failing to take ethics reform seriously and Campbell accused Baruth of impugning the Senate's integrity.

The exchange came at the end of an otherwise collegial meeting of the Senate Rules Committee, during which its members debated a trio of proposed changes to the upper chamber's rules. The Senate is considering establishing an internal ethics panel, requiring senators to identify their employers, and asking interns and aides to register with the Statehouse sergeant-at-arms.

Though the committee appeared inclined to move forward with the proposals, an argument broke out over how much personal information senators should be required to disclose to the public. As drafted, one of the proposals would ask members to fill out a form every two years identifying whom they work for and on what boards they serve. The House enacted a similar rule nearly two years ago.

Baruth wanted to go further. He suggested that senators also disclose the names of companies in which they held a "controlling interest."

"If I have a majority stake in three companies in Vermont and people know about one of them and they don't know about the other two and I'm writing legislation to advantage those companies, then I've got a concealed relationship and a clear conflict," Baruth said.

Campbell argued that determining where to draw the line would be difficult. 

"I think [requiring the disclosure of] employers is fine," he said. "How far do you go? How far do you take that string?"

Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) and Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland) both pointed out that senators are already barred from voting on matters in which they have a financial interest.

"Exactly," Baruth said. "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.”

"I understand what you're saying. I'm not going to disagree," Campbell responded. But, he added, the notion that senators would hide a conflict from their peers was "an affront."

  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Phil Baruth
"But wouldn't the rest of the rule be an affront to you?" Baruth asked. "Because it's all saying we have to disclose [personal information] because there might be a conflict."

"I'm just saying that it would be nice to think that we ... have enough personal ethics that we would do that — that we would disclose stuff like that," Campbell said.

As Flory and Baruth debated whether shareholders would also have to identify smaller stakes in larger companies, Campbell looked at Baruth and asked, "Do you — just out of curiosity — is there somebody that you know currently that is doing this?"

"No, but, John, what you're—" Baruth began.

"No, I'm just curious," Campbell interjected. 

"I hate to say, what you're doing is you're saying that any attempt to tighten up these disclosure things is laughable — and it's not," Baruth shot back. "That's why we're here. And that's why—"

"Wait. I didn't say it's 'laughable,'" Campbell said.

"Well, but I mean, you're — you're mocking the idea that—" Baruth said.

"I did not," Campbell snapped. "No, no, don't. You know what: We have reporters here. Do not, do not—"

  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. John Campbell
"Hey!" Baruth protested.

"Don't go there," Mazza said, looking at Baruth. 

"—go there," Campbell continued. "Because if it shows that I'm saying that—" 

"I'm saying, I'm saying that you guys are making light of the idea," Baruth said.

Several of his colleagues raised their voices and objected in unison.

"We're not making light of the idea," Campbell insisted.

"Let's not put something in language that we can't abide by," Mazza said. "Let's do it accurately."

"OK, I am suggesting that we find language we can agree to," Baruth said. "You guys are reluctant to do that."

"No, we're pointing out things that you should be thinking of, everyone should be thinking of," Campbell said to his No. 2. "If you're drafting policy—"

"You're making us look like we're hiding something," Mazza said.

"—especially policy that is going to be in effect for a long period of time," Campbell continued. "So, you know, I do take offense to your comments about being lighthearted."

Flory, appearing flustered by the escalating argument, intervened.

"I move that we adjourn," she said. "Because I need to eat."

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