Members of the Vermont State Ethics Commission are not satisfied with a draft opinion about Gov. Phil Scott's sale of his share in a construction business and are seeking a stronger rewrite.
When Scott became governor, he sold his half-interest in DuBois Construction to the company for $2.5 million. The deal was designed to avoid potential conflicts of interest, since DuBois frequently bids on state contracts. But the sale was financed by Scott himself, which means that he retains a large financial stake in DuBois. He receives monthly loan payments from the firm that totaled $75,000 in the year 2017.
The Vermont Public Interest Research Group claimed that the DuBois deal clearly violates the Ethics Commission's code of ethics and sought an advisory opinion from the commission. VPIRG chose not to file an ethics complaint against Scott because complaints are handled behind closed doors and the process is exempt from public disclosure. The advisory opinion process is entirely open.
At its meeting on September 5, the commission voted unanimously to have executive director Brian Leven prepare a draft opinion for the full body to consider. On September 12, Leven issued his draft, which he made available to the media.
As first reported on VTDigger.org, Leven's draft essentially dodged the question. He asserted that the commission could not issue an advisory opinion about a specific situation because it has no authority to investigate the facts of the situation. The law establishing the commission, he wrote, "confers only the authority to provide general advice or interpretation."
Leven did note that the DuBois deal seems to violate a passage in the ethics code that warns against "the appearance of a potential or actual conflict of interest.” But he asserted that this warning is nothing more than advice. "Public officials must use their own discretion in determining whether or not to adhere to this guidance," he wrote in the draft opinion.
His draft was criticized by VPIRG executive director Paul Burns. "The only question is, 'Is the Ethics Commission willing to provide any guidance on the code they just adopted?'" Burns said. "If not, it calls into question the value of the Ethics Commission itself."
The commission apparently agrees with Burns. "We're going back and forth on redrafting," said commission chair Madeline Motta, a professional ethics consultant. "We're unified in that we'd like to see a fuller response."
During its September 5 meeting, commission members agreed that the body could issue an advisory opinion based on the assumption that a set of facts is true — without having to investigate. "We can do it in a way that's educational," Motta said Thursday. "Why even have an ethics code unless you interpret it and offer advice?"
The Scott administration has consistently defended the DuBois sale. After the September 5 meeting, Scott spokesperson Ethan Latour accused VPIRG of playing politics. "This request for an opinion is a recycled partisan attack by an organization that tries to disguise itself as acting in the public interest," Latour wrote in an email.
The commissioners will continue working with Leven to draft an opinion that's more in line with their desire to provide guidance on ethical issues. The panel's next meeting is on October 3, when it could approve such an opinion.