Gov. Phil Scott has some harsh words for the Vermont State Ethics Commission, which recently issued an opinion critical of his ties to a construction firm that bids on state contracts. He also called for unspecified changes to the commission.
"I was disappointed," Scott said at a Friday press conference. "I'd offered to come before them, offered any information they might need." But he got no response to his offer.
In fact, the ethics commission has no authority to investigate or take testimony. It can only refer ethics complaints to other agencies or issue advisory opinions in response to inquiries. In this case, it issued an advisory opinion.
Scott said that the panel's process is "fraught with danger," apparently meaning that other parties would try to use it for political advantage. Which is what he believes happened in this case. "It seems suspect to me that a powerful political organization makes a complaint during October of an election year," he said.
At issue is Scott's relationship with DuBois Construction. Before he became governor, Scott owned half of the company. In an effort to avoid conflicts of interest, Scott sold his ownership stake — but he financed the deal himself. That meant the loan comprised the bulk of his net worth, and he gets monthly payments from DuBois. During 2017, those payments added up to $75,000.
The Vermont Public Interest Research Group originally sought guidance from the Ethics Commission in January. At the time, the panel rebuffed VPIRG because it had yet to approve a state code of ethics. On June 6, the commission adopted such a code.
On August 31, VPIRG asked the panel to issue an advisory opinion based on the new code. Some commissioners noted the political implications of the request, but the full panel decided to proceed.
"It's clear that anybody can seek an opinion and our job is to provide one," said commissioner Chris Davis, an attorney with the Burlington law firm Langrock Sperry & Wool, during the panel's September meeting.
On October 1, the commission released its opinion, concluding that Scott's ongoing financial relationship with DuBois creates "a potential or actual conflict of interest," quoting its own ethics code.
Scott now believes that the commission needs some reworking. But he's not willing to make any suggestions.
"I’m going to let the legislature work on this," he said at his Friday press conference. "This is their idea, their concept. They worked on it for a number of years, and I think they’ll continue to work on it."
The governor also complained that the ethics code had not been vetted before being adopted. "This is a new code that they came up with on their own," he said. "I don’t think it went through a rules process. I don’t believe there was any oversight by the legislature."
The 2017 statute establishing the ethics commission does not provide for any legislative review. The salient portion of state law reads, "The Ethics Commission, in consultation with the Department of Human Resources, shall create and maintain the State Code of Ethics that sets forth general principles of governmental ethical conduct."
The ethics commission has no enforcement powers, and its opinions have no practical impact beyond embarrassing publicity.