The state’s leading government reform group is calling on legislators to establish a Code of Ethics in state law and make it enforceable by an independent Ethics Commission. Earlier this year, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) criticized the lack of authority given the current Ethics Commission, and the Commission’s efforts to conceal some of its earlier work from the public.
The Senate Government Operations Committee today unanimously passed a bill to put in motion a plan to strengthen the state’s approach to ethics.
“It’s good to see that legislative leaders are finally on a path toward improving our anemic state ethics program,” said Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG. “But we must also note that the process is painfully slow and there is no guarantee that in the end the code of ethics will cover all state employees and that it will be fully enforced by an independent body.”
Earlier this week, Vermont’s six statewide elected officials sent a letter to the Chairs of the Senate and House Committees on Government Operations, urging them to continue working this session toward “a Code of Ethics for public servants that is backed by the force of law.” The statewide officials, including Gov. Phil Scott, noted that putting the Code of Ethics in Vermont law would “provide public servants with direction and clarity on numerous issues they regularly face.”
Yet, on January 28, 2020, Gov’s Scott’s own Department of Human Resources informed the director of the State Ethics Commission that it had determined that “no further action is warranted or necessary” in response to a formal complaint lodged by VPIRG late last year.
The complaint by VPIRG alleged that Gov. Scott has a conflict of interest because he has an ongoing financial interest in a company (DuBois Construction) that contracts with the State, and as governor, he is the chief executive of the State. It was those same elements of fact that led the State Ethics Commission to declare in an Advisory Opinion in 2018 that the governor’s financial arrangement with his former business did violate at least four principles in the State’s current Code of Ethics. VPIRG’s research, contained in the formal complaint filed with the Ethics Commission on November 25, 2019, found that those ethical violations are ongoing under this administration.
In 2019, the Ethics Commission, under pressure from state officials who were unhappy with the fact that VPIRG had utilized a provision in state law to request an Advisory Opinion, removed the Opinion from public view as though it had never been written. The Commission went further by reinterpreting the law, disregarding the plain meaning of its language, and making clear that in the future it would deny any requests for an Advisory Opinion from the public.
The Ethics Commission never disavowed the contents of its opinion, however, that found that the governor was repeatedly violating the Code of Ethics by taking money from his former business and giving that business State contracts.
Under current law, once VPIRG filed the Complaint with the Ethics Commission in November, the Commission was bound to pass the Complaint to the only entity that could act on it. In this case, that was the Department of Human Resources (DHR), controlled by the governor.
After nearly two months, DHR informed the Ethics Commission that it would do nothing with the Complaint. There would be no investigation of the facts. No consideration of the earlier Advisory Opinion by the Ethics Commission that identified glaring conflicts of interest. No findings or conclusions about whether the governor’s conflicts amount to a violation of the Code of Ethics or DHR’s own personnel policies. And certainly, no enforcement action.
“It is outrageous that a department of the Scott administration can dismiss without consideration a complaint alleging ethical conflicts by Gov. Scott,” said Burns. “I’m afraid what we have now is an administrative coverup of a clear conflict of interest that had already been identified by the State Ethics Commission.”
The case of the governor’s conflict of interest, and the coverup and utter lack of transparency associated with any attempt to address it, are a clear indication of the inadequacies of the State’s current ethics program.
“I appreciate the support of all of our statewide officials for a stronger Code of Ethics in Vermont. Instead of just sending a letter though, a more meaningful step by Gov. Scott would be for him to respond to his own conflict now,” said Burns.