With just months remaining in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s administration, his top cabinet official is preparing to take a spin through Montpelier’s revolving door. Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson plans to leave state government next Friday for a gig with the Vermont lobbying firm MMR.
According to MMR president Andrew MacLean, the Australian-born public servant will launch a new practice focused on helping business and government meet new climate regulations.
“Justin brings with him more than 20 years of state, local and federal government experience in the US, Australia and abroad, and will be a great asset to our dynamic firm,” MacLean said in a statement.
Replacing Johnson through the remainder of Shumlin’s tenure, which ends in January, will be Agency of Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Trey Martin. He has some experience following Johnson, having succeeded him nearly two years ago in the No. 2 position at ANR.
Johnson’s move to a powerful Montpelier lobbying firm is sure to raise eyebrows, but both MacLean and Shumlin spokeswoman Sue Allen insisted Thursday that it was perfectly legal.
The Executive Code of Ethics, which Shumlin signed in July 2011, bars former appointees such as Johnson from lobbying “any public body or … the state legislature” on matters in which the state has “a direct and substantial interest” and “in which the appointee had participated personally and substantively while in state employ.”
According to Allen, Johnson won’t be roaming the halls of the Statehouse on behalf of MMR and its clients. Those include the Corrections Corporation of America, DISH Network, WCAX-TV, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Pomerleau Real Estate, Reynolds American, Verizon, Walmart and ExxonMobil.
“Justin’s job involves environmental and climate change work at the international and national level,” Allen said. “He will not be advocating before Vermont’s General Assembly or Executive Branch.”
MacLean said the same.
“Due to the nature of his future work there is no violation of the Executive Code of Ethics,” the lobbyist said. “Justin will not be working with any executive agency within Vermont or with the legislature.”
MMR is no stranger to such situations. In the closing months of former governor Jim Douglas’ administration, in 2010, the firm hired his deputy chief of staff, Heidi Tringe. That same year, it picked up former ANR general counsel Warren Coleman. Both Tringe and Coleman are now partners at MMR.
According to MacLean, the firm first approached Johnson about employment opportunities on July 11. That same day, Johnson sent Shumlin chief of staff Darren Springer a memo documenting a “potential conflict or appearance of conflict of interest regarding possible future employment.”
In the memo, which Allen provided to Seven Days Thursday afternoon, Johnson wrote that he was “likely to leave the State of Vermont by the end of October, 2016 and begin working on a contract through MMR, LLC in November 2016.” He pledged to recuse himself “from any involvement in signing, waiving the process for, or discussing the merits of State of Vermont contracts, grants or other agency matters with any of MMR, LLC’s clients.”
He specifically listed as potential conflicts the following firms: MAXIMUS, Deloitte, Vermont Information Technology Leaders, the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, the Vermont Nursing Home Association, BAYADA Home Health Care and Microsoft. Decisions involving those firms would be delegated to his deputy, Michael Clasen, he wrote at the time.
Johnson did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. But in an interview in June, he admitted that he and many of his colleagues had an eye on their next job.
“We all have mortgages and kids and lives,” he told Seven Days at the time. “To be honest, we’re all thinking about it right now.”