The Vermont State Ethics Commission, which has just entered its second year of existence, is seeking a broader mandate and more resources, as well as a change in the law inspired by its highest-profile action of 2018.
Commission chair Madeline Motta and executive director Larry Novins presented the panel's first annual report to the Senate Government Operations Committee Thursday afternoon and laid out their case for expanded authority.
The mostly powerless ethics commission was created by the legislature in 2017. It was given no investigative authority and a single, part-time executive director. The panel's primary function is to receive ethics complaints and refer them to the appropriate enforcement agency, such as the Attorney General's Office or the Department of Human Resources.
At Thursday's hearing, Motta and Novins argued for the power to investigate allegations of conflicts-of-interest. "We should have the authority to reach out to all parties," Novins said. "It's difficult to weigh a complaint without hearing from all those involved, and the subject of a complaint should have the opportunity to respond."
This would require a rewrite of the enabling law and an increase in staff. Motta and Novins proposed hiring a full-time investigator and a part-time administrator. The Senate committee deferred any action on the requests until a later date.
Much of the discussion concerned an advisory opinion released by the commission in early October. It found that Gov. Phil Scott's business arrangement with DuBois Construction was in violation of the state ethics code.
Scott was a co-owner of DuBois, which is a frequent bidder on state contracts. When he became governor, he sold his half-interest to a business partner, but no cash was exchanged in the sale. Instead, Scott loaned the $2.5 million purchase price to the buyer. The arrangement means that Scott has no management role in DuBois, but he retains a substantial financial interest in the firm, and he receives monthly payments from DuBois that totaled $75,000 last year.
The opinion was requested by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. At first, VPIRG filed an ethics complaint against Scott, but it later refiled it as an advisory request. The handling of complaints is confidential, while advisory opinions are subject to public disclosure.
Senators questioned the commission's handling of the request and the release of its findings. Government Operations Committee chair Jeanette White (D-Windham) said that only public officials should be able to request advisory opinions. The purpose of such opinions, she said, is to provide guidance to those covered by the state ethics code.
"The law is silent on that issue," replied Motta.
"It was always our intent," said White, "but we need to make it clear."
There appeared to be consensus on the committee to make the change, which would close the only publicly accessible process in the ethics commission's purview.
Scott's chief counsel, Jaye Pershing Johnson, attended the hearing. Afterward, she denied that she was present because of the controversy over the DuBois opinion. "I didn't think they'd even discuss it today," she said.
Eric LaMontagne, executive director of Campaign for Vermont, which lobbies for transparency in government, was cautiously optimistic after the hearing. "I was encouraged to hear that investigative authority is part of the conversation," he said. "We support a strong state ethics system that has teeth and is as transparent as possible."
As committee chair, White has a lot of influence over the ethics commission. In 2017, she was openly skeptical about the need for such a body. She hasn't changed her mind. "I have concerns about an ethics commission with investigatory authority," she said. As for more funding, she posited a hypothetical. "Is it the best use of the money? Do we want more money for an ethics panel or [to] provide assistance for the disabled?"