The Senate Rules Committee voted to adopt ethics and financial disclosure rules.
The five-member Senate Rules Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to recommend adoption of a rule and a procedure to handle ethical complaints involving senators.
The committee also supported a second rule to set up financial disclosure for senators. That rule mirrors the process that the Senate Government Operations Committee wants to put in place for all statewide elected officials, candidates and high-level managers in state government.
The full Senate will consider the proposed rules later this week. The House adopted similar measures to govern its members in 2014, and those formed the basis for the Senate package.
Senators have already adopted a rule that requires them to inform the sergeant-at-arms about any interns, aides, employees or assistants working for them, whether paid or unpaid.
The suspension of Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin) early in the session because of sexual assault charges having been brought against him — in one instance involving a young intern — prompted senators to decide they needed a process to address ethical complaints.
Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell (D-Windsor) had commented that if the legislature was going to set up an ethics commission and financial disclosure for state officials, the Senate ought to adopt rules for itself. The ethics commission bill for state officials is currently in the Senate Appropriations Committee because it requires funding.
The disclosure rule is simple. It requires senators to submit a disclosure form at the beginning of each two-year term. The rule itself doesn’t specify what information must be listed, but a draft form calls for senators to disclose employment in which they earn more than $10,000, investments that produce income greater than $10,000 and boards on which they serve.
During the Senate Rules Committee’s discussion of the disclosure rule, Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) predicted, “We are going to have a debate on the floor about what should be disclosed.”
The ethics rule says a five-member panel would be named every two years and charged with receiving and investigating any allegations of ethical violations by senators.
The Senate Rules Committee also adopted a two-page procedure for handling reports of alleged violations. The procedure says complaints must focus on possible unethical conduct that took place during the current two-year term. Anyone who is making a complaint must sign a written report that will be shared with the person accused of improper behavior.
The panel would first decide whether it found probable cause to believe an ethical violation of the Vermont Constitution or Senate rules had occurred. If the answer is yes, the panel would undertake an investigation. If the answer is no, the process would stop, and the report would remain confidential.
An investigation would involve interviewing witnesses and collecting documents. This process would be confidential. If the panel and the person under investigation reached an agreement about a remedial action, the results would be shared with the individual who made the complaint.
The rules committee had considered keeping the agreement secret from the person who had complained, but Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) objected.
If the ethics panel, when it believed there had been an ethical violation, failed to reach an agreement with the person under investigation, it could draft charges and call a hearing. That would be closed to the public, unless the person accused of a violation wanted the hearing to be open. If after a court-like process, the panel concluded that an ethical violation had occurred, it would introduce a resolution listing the charges, the evidence, the findings and recommendations for disciplinary action. The full Senate would vote on this resolution.
All records associated with the procedure — except for the resolution itself — would remain confidential and not be subject to requests under the Public Records Act.