Ethics Schmethics: The Slow Death of Reform in the Vermont Senate | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Ethics Schmethics: The Slow Death of Reform in the Vermont Senate


Published April 27, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated May 18, 2016 at 12:10 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Sen. Jeanette White - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Jeanette White

Talk about déjà vu! This time last year, Vermont legislators were questioning whether the state really needed new ethics rules. Then scandal broke. Attorney General Bill Sorrell faced accusations that he filed suit at the behest of a campaign donor and later hired the donor to represent the state. A few weeks later, the cops showed up at the Statehouse to arrest Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin) on sexual assault charges.

The legislature soon adjourned without acting on ethics.

This year, it's more of the same. A Senate committee spent months dithering over an ethics reform bill, watering it down almost to the point of meaninglessness. Then, five days before it reached the Senate floor last week, another scandal broke: Federal and state officials accused two major Vermont campaign donors of exploiting a government program to defraud foreign investors of more than $200 million.

House leaders now say they don't have enough time before next week's anticipated adjournment to take up the ethics bill.

"The hour is very late," says Majority Leader Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford). "We've been waiting for a bill from the Senate for the entire session."

That bill, which finally passed the upper chamber last Wednesday, leaves plenty to be desired. As Sen. Bobby Starr (D-Essex-Orleans) put it during a floor debate, "I just think it is a pretty big pile of mud."

The bill's central purpose is to establish a five-member commission, staffed by a part-time executive director, to "accept" allegations of ethical misconduct in state government. But the commission — some of whose members, bizarrely, are appointed by special interest groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union — has little power to act on such allegations. Instead, it's supposed to forward them to those who already do: the attorney general, the Department of Human Resources, etc.

Asked what purpose the commission would serve, other than to slow down an existing process, Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) concedes, "not much."

So why create it in the first place? White, who helped craft the bill as chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee, provided a pretty big hint two weeks ago in her local newspaper.

"The issue of ethics and the lack of an ethics commission has been of great interest over the last year or so to the media," she wrote in the Brattleboro Reformer. "How many Vermonters are passionate about the issue is not clear..."

If this one's for the media — thanks, but no thanks.

What Vermont state government needs is not some toothless commission to sit on complaints, but rather clear ethical guidelines and a means of enforcing them. We currently have neither.

White argued in the Reformer, "Up to this point, we have not seen a lot of cases of unethical behavior."

Funny, because in my four years at Seven Days, I've documented plenty of them: legislators voting on issues involving their employers; lawmakers working for and even as lobbyists; regulators leaving state government to work for those they regulated; Senate and administration staffers spinning through the revolving door to become lobbyists; officeholders hitting up state contractors and lobbyists for campaign donations; an attorney general soliciting free travel from those with business before the state; and a no-bid state contractor offering the governor's daughter a job.

And now there's what WCAX-TV has dubbed "Kingdom Con": Federal and state authorities have accused two politically connected developers, Jay Peak's Ariel Quiros and Bill Stenger, of perpetrating a $200 million "Ponzi-like" scheme with money they raised through the federal EB-5 investor visa program. For years, lawmakers of both parties helped Stenger court investors abroad, collected tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations and overlooked signs that something was amiss.

But as House Government Operations Committee chair Donna Sweaney (D-Windsor) puts it, Vermont "is not the same as Washington and other states."

She adds, "I think, for the most part, we're all up-front and do pretty well."

No doubt that's true of Sweaney, White and the rank-and-file members who serve on their respective committees. And that's kind of the problem. As backbenchers craft the state's campaign finance and ethics laws, they look around at one another and see no evil. But somehow they remain naïve and oblivious to the documented ethical lapses — and big money at stake — in other realms of state government.

The Senate did consider two concrete proposals that could have addressed some of those lapses.

One would bar statewide officials, legislators, secretaries, commissioners and their deputies from lobbying for a year upon leaving office. But the so-called revolving-door provision excludes top gubernatorial and legislative staffers — perhaps those most qualified to take lobbying jobs. In recent years, such ex-employees have gone to work for Jay Peak, Green Mountain Power, OneCare Vermont and Montpelier's top three lobbying shops.

And, conveniently, the prohibition wouldn't take effect until 2017, meaning those pouring out of Gov. Peter Shumlin's administration and the legislature in Janurary would be free to do as they please.

"We thought it was unfair if that was what they were planning to do — to impose that on them before the end of their tenure," White explains. "Because they might be negotiating their contract right now."

How thoughtful.

On the Senate floor last Wednesday, Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) proposed bolstering the provision to keep ex-lawmakers not only from registering as lobbyists but from working for one of 24 lobby shops.

"It's clear to me that somebody who works for a firm, regardless of whether they do direct contact in attempts to influence legislators directly, can still influence the process," he says.

Sirotkin should know. For decades, he ran the influential lobbying firm now known as the Necrason Group before filling late wife Sally Fox's Senate seat two years ago.

Last Wednesday, the Senate first voted 15 to 14 in favor of Sirotkin's amendment, but then Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex-Orleans) asked to switch from "yea" to "nay." Before the Senate secretary could call the roll, Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell (D-Windsor) stood to "clarify" that the amendment wouldn't prevent ex-lawmakers from working for a nonprofit group that lobbies the legislature, such as the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. After Campbell made clear his opposition, it failed 14 to 15.

Campbell, who is retiring at the end of the year, recently landed a job running the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs — a public position that involves lobbying the legislature for more funding. He says his personal circumstances didn't influence his vote. He simply saw the amendment as "unfair" to ex-lawmakers.

Campbell's girlfriend, Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset), also opposes the bill. She announced two weeks ago that she, too, is leaving the legislature. Komline says she doesn't know what she'll do next, but she plans to stay in Montpelier and is considering lobbying.

"If a bill is passed that says you can't do that, that limits my choices," she says. "And I don't see how, at my level here, there's a conflict of interest in me going from this to that."

The second concrete proposal the Senate considered would have banned state officers from contracting with campaign donors. According to Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington), the so-called pay-to-play provision was inspired by the scandal that dogged Sorrell last year.

The AG himself admitted in a sworn affidavit that a lobbyist for a Texas law firm handed him an envelope with $10,000 worth of checks at a 2014 fundraiser and then immediately asked him to file suit against the energy industry. Sorrell did and later hired the firm, Baron & Budd, to take the case and reap the potential rewards.

It's unclear, though possible, that such a pay-to-play provision would have prevented Quiros and Stenger from donating as much as they have to various Vermont political campaigns. They hold a contract to run Newport's Northeast Kingdom International Airport and were paid nearly $104,000 for various state services in fiscal year 2014.

Either way, White admits, "It looks terrible" that her committee decided to kill the pay-to-play proposal shortly before the EB-5 story broke. In the ethics bill that passed the Senate last week, lawmakers simply tasked the commission with recommending whether to ban such behavior.

"Frankly, they punted," says VPIRG executive director Paul Burns.

It's reminiscent of when White and her Senate chums punted on proposals in 2013 to ban corporate contributions to Vermont politicians and set limits on how much political parties can transfer to the candidates they support. Over the years, Quiros exploited those two loopholes to contribute tens of thousands of dollars to Shumlin's campaign — far in excess of what was then a $2,000-per-person limit — by donating through the companies he controlled and through the Vermont Democratic Party.

Sweaney and Copeland Hanzas say it's conceivable that the House could still take up the Senate's anemic ethics-reform bill, but a better question might be: Should they even bother?

"There are times when it's better to get a foot in the door," Burns says. "I guess I'm still glass half full. Maybe one-third full."

Perhaps, but maybe legislators should just quit while they're behind, go home to their districts and explain to voters this fall that Vermont doesn't have an ethics problem.

That should go over well. After all, only the media care.

Media Notes

A pair of recent court rulings could help the media get their hands on more, but not all, of the costs involved in intercontinental gubernatorial jaunts.

After Shumlin, Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz and an aide traveled to Paris last December for the United Nations Climate Summit, the administration refused to release several receipts from the trip. For years, Shumlin's staff has argued that revealing costs associated with his Vermont State Police detail could compromise his security.

WCAX news director Anson Tebbetts appealed the administration's denial. When that failed, the station sued.

In a brief, the state argued that revealing the very "existence or nonexistence" of the records "would, by [its] very nature, disclose whether the Governor traveled with a security detail during any portion or during all of his trip to France."

Alas, the state seems to have undercut its own case. In her ruling, Vermont Superior Court Judge Helen Toor wrote that the administration "seems hoist by its own petard," because it had already admitted in court the very thing it was claiming needed to be kept secret: that Shumlin occasionally travels without security.

She ordered the administration to provide WCAX the ground transportation receipts by last Friday. Those amounted to nearly $4,000 for a chauffeured sedan and a rental car. Toor separately asked the state to give her a peek at the rest of the security costs. After reviewing them, she ruled Tuesday that their release could, in fact, pose a security risk.

"The public has a legitimate interest in how its money is spent, but not at the cost of creating danger to government officials," she wrote.

Far from Paris, a group of Stockbridge, Mass., citizens announced last Thursday that they would buy their local paper, the Berkshire Eagle, from hedge fund-owned Digital First Media, effective May 2. Included in the undisclosed price were three southern Vermont newspapers: the daily Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner and the weekly Manchester Journal.

Readers, employees and former Reformer alumni, such as myself, reacted with glee to the news that, after more than two decades of chain ownership, the papers would return to locals.

"It's like winning the lottery," said Kevin Moran, who edits the four papers.

After years of staff cuts — including approximately a dozen layoffs last June — the papers appeared poised for a rebound. A press release announcing the transaction promised "a substantial number of new hires for positions in the newsroom" and elsewhere.

But one of the new owners, retired judge Fredric Rutberg, appeared to walk that back this week in an interview with Seven Days. He said he could not promise any newsroom hires, suggesting, "Reporters can act more efficiently.

"I'm not committing to anything right now," Rutberg said.