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Governor Voices Support For Creation Of State Ethics Commission

Picture of Governor Peter Shumlin
Pat Bradley/WAMC
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Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin

Unlike most states, Vermont does not have an ethics commission to review any questionable acts by state leaders and employees.  There have been a number of high-level moves at the top of Vermont government that have raised some eyebrows over the past few years.  That has led to a surge in calls for the creation of such a body.  This week Governor Peter Shumlin agreed.

There have been numerous reports over the past few years about questionable actions by state officials.  Among them: the Senate President Pro Tem hired as an assistant prosecutor after getting legislation creating the position pushed through the Senate;  a recent state employee in charge of regulating EB5 projects quitting to run such a project at a ski area;  an administration executive charged with developing universal broadband leaving to head a telephone company.  Even the Lieutenant Governor acknowledges his construction company contracts with the state.

Governor Peter Shumlin was asked this week if he would support creation of an ethics commission.  Spokesman Scott Coriell says the governor has no problem with the idea.   “I asked the governor and he said he would be supportive.  It’s consistent where’s he’s been in the past. Every time he’s run for election he’s voluntarily disclosed his assets and his tax returns.  So it wasn’t anything too new for us.”

Campaign for Vermont has been calling for an independent ethics commission since 2013.  It launched an online petition three weeks ago that has already garnered 500 signatures.  Executive Director Cyrus Patten believes the governor is acknowledging that public support for a commission is growing.   “We’re not protected against the minority of people who would take advantage of the public trust. It’s not likely that there, for example, is a quid pro quo but the possibility exists and in the current state of affairs we’re not protected.  We have no standards against which we can evaluate those types of decisions.”

Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos is drafting a proposal to create an ethics commission.  He is pleased the governor supports the concept, calling it a good base to push forward with enabling legislation.   “Vermont is one of three or four states that does not have any kind of ethics commission,  certainly an independent ethics commission. There’s a lot of need for it I think overall.  Right now there’s no general statement of conflict of interest. There’s no requirement for financial disclosure. There’s no place to deal with any kind of these complaints.”

There are those who doubt the governor’s sincerity.  The Vermont Republican Party recently criticized the appointment of the wife of the director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group to head the Department of Environmental Conservation.  Party Chair David Sunderland wonders about the governor’s timing.   “A lame duck governor suddenly makes this proclamation that he’s okay with an ethics committee.  The timing of that just seems suspect.  Any action that any proposed committee could take at this point would be too late for any of the questionable decisions that have come from the Shumlin administration. So I think it raises a lot of questions about why now and why not earlier?”

Coriell says the governor simply hadn’t been asked his opinion before now.  “There has been some news recently about various things.  This is not in response to any of that.  We were asked whether he would support an ethics commission and we said he would.”

A bill was introduced in the Vermont legislature to create a Vermont Ethics Commission but failed to come out of committee before adjournment. 

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