The Vermont State Ethics Commission voted Wednesday to consider the propriety of Gov. Phil Scott's financial ties to a construction firm that does business with the state.
The Vermont Public Interest Research Group formally requested an advisory opinion on the matter in an August 31 letter. At a Wednesday meeting, the five commissioners asked the panel's executive director, Brian Leven, to write a draft opinion for their consideration.
When Scott became governor, he sold his half-interest in DuBois Construction to the company for $2.5 million. There was no down payment, and so far Scott has been receiving interest-only payments. (In 2017, those payments totaled $75,000.) Technically, Scott had divested himself of his ownership interest. But the bulk of his net worth remains tied up in the loan, which gives him a strong financial interest in DuBois' success.
Last week, Scott disclosed a recent ownership change at the company. According to VTDigger.org, Scott's former partner, Don DuBois, has sold his half-interest to company president Jeff Newton and vice president Wayne Lamberton. The deal increases the firm's debt load, but Scott expressed confidence that its finances remain sound.
In June, the Ethics Commission approved a code of ethics that includes warnings against "potential or actual conflicts of interest" and "the appearance of a conflict of interest." VPIRG cited that language in its inquiry, which noted that "Scott maintains an ongoing financial interest" in the firm.
The commission has no investigatory or enforcement powers. It can receive ethics complaints or requests for advisory opinions. The former are considered behind closed doors; the latter are decided openly, and any findings are made public. And that's exactly why VPIRG sought an opinion instead of filing a complaint.
"I think it should be public," said VPIRG executive director Paul Burns. "You let people decide whether that's important to them or not. But they deserve to know, and I think we deserve to get a response."
A negative ruling would bring no sanctions, but it could be embarrassing to the governor. And members of the commission are well aware of that.
"My concern is that it's presented as a request for an advisory opinion, but it's more like a complaint because it's about one individual case," Leven said. Opinions, he said, are supposed to be "more general advice."
"This has political implications and comes from a group that's very political," said commissioner Julie Hulburd, human resources manager for the city of Winooski. "I'm concerned that the commission could be used as a political football."
"I understand the concern," replied commissioner Chris Davis, an attorney with the Burlington law firm Langrock Sperry and Wool. "But it's clear that anybody can seek an opinion and our job is to provide one."
"We have to deal with requests as they come in," said commission chair Madeline Motta, a professional ethics consultant. "Political or not, that's our job."
In the end, that sentiment carried the day. Commissioners voted unanimously to have Leven draft an opinion for the panel to consider.
After the meeting, Burns rejected the implication of political intent. "I don't know what that means," he said. "The request stands on its own. It's not about politics. This is a legitimate ethical question. I'm pleased that they see it as their job."
The Scott administration reacted dismissively to the VPIRG inquiry. "[Scott] no longer has any involvement in the business, whatsoever," spokesperson Ethan Latour wrote in an email. "This request for an opinion is a recycled partisan attack by an organization that tries to disguise itself as acting in the public interest."
Leven said he could prepare the draft opinion in a week's time. The commission's first opportunity for discussion would be at its next meeting, on the first Monday in October.