MONTPELIER — The deep-pocketed founder of what’s been billed as a nonprofit public advocacy organization will look to make his mark on the 2014 legislative session by pushing for a series of ethics reforms.
Bruce Lisman — the former Wall Street executive who retired to his home state of Vermont shortly after his firm, Bear Stearns, collapsed in the dramatic stock market crash of 2008 — wants elected officials to have to disclose information about their personal finances, as well as any interests in which they have a financial stake.
Lisman is also calling for an independent, “quasi-judicial ethics commission” to regulate and monitor officials held in the public trust.
“People I’ve talked to just presumed that there were ethics guidelines, and are very surprised that there aren’t,” Lisman said last week. “And this is a perfect building block for a bigger mission of transparency. It’s a significant first step along that pathway.
Since founding “Campaign for Vermont” in 2011, Lisman has poured nearly $1 million of his own money into a group that, according to its website, advocates “for common sense, non-partisan solutions that promote economic opportunity and improves the quality of life for current and future generations of Vermonters.”
The group, which Lisman says has about 1,000 members, has issued lengthy position papers on education, budgeting and “transparency.” Specifically, the group has called for the streamlining of education governance and the limiting of annual increases in the state budget to between 2 and 3 percent.
But 2014, according to Lisman, will mark the group’s foray into legislative lobbying. And one of Lisman’s main focuses, he said, will be the establishment of ethics guidelines.
“It is true that most Vermonters don’t break laws, but we still have a wide array of regulatory frameworks that offer protection from the few that do. In addition, corruption isn’t always a matter of stealing money or selling access or influence — but it certainly can be,” Lisman wrote in an op-ed sent to news outlets across the state last week. “Ethics guidelines would tell us how conflicts of interest should be treated in certain circumstances and mandatory disclosures would help us highlight potential pitfalls.”
While Lisman has denied having any political ambitions, observers in Montpelier have long viewed Campaign for Vermont as a sort of gubernatorial exploratory committee. In an August column titled “Governor Lisman?” Seven Days reporter Paul Heintz chronicles the self-promotion and issue advocacy in which Lisman has engaged since returning to Vermont.
Lisman’s latest ethics initiative comes on the heels of a series of stories earlier this summer about controversial land deals involving Gov. Peter Shumlin. Asked whether those deals inspired his push for heightened disclosure rules, Lisman said they did not.
He said they might have, however, “highlighted the need” for the brand of ethics reform he’s pushing.
“Some states have ethics panels where you go to for advice,” Lisman said. “Might they have opined as to whether (the land deal) was an OK thing to do, or not an OK thing to do? You’d have to live in a parallel world to know that. So maybe it highlights the issue. But it isn’t the reason for it.”
For an advocate who has spent so heavily on outreach and advertising — he recently launched a $60,000 television campaign, one of several over the past two years — Lisman has a surprisingly low profile in Montpelier, where Campaign for Vermont has yet to show any capacity to move the legislative dial.
While Lisman may be angling to change that with a more robust lobbying presence in 2014, he doesn’t seem to think lawmakers will be terribly receptive to the proposal.
“CFV will be releasing a detailed ethics proposal,” Lisman wrote in his op-ed. “Be prepared for political insiders to say they support it but take no meaningful action, or attempt to explain away ethics laws and disclosures as unnecessary.”
House Speaker Shap Smith, however, said he’s open to the idea, specifically when it comes to mandating disclosure of conflicts of interest.
“This is something that I have talked with a number of people about over the last year, and I do think that we could do more with regard to conflict of interest issues,” Smith said last week.
Smith said the issue may not even require legislation, as the House and Senate each have their owns rules regarding conflicts of interest. House Rule 75, for example, currently requires lawmakers to assess for themselves whether they have a conflict, and whether that conflict merits recusal.
“My view is we ought to take a look at what other states are doing and see how Vermont does compared to other states, and then figure out something that addresses the concerns that people have,” Smith said.
As for the disclosure of personal finances, Smith said he has “reservations” about requiring it for members of the House and Senate. In a state that relies on part-time citizen legislators, Smith said he thinks the requirement would discourage people from running.
The Shumlin administration says transparency has been a top priority for the Democratic governor since he took office in 2011, and that it’s eager to review any proposals that might improve public confidence in the integrity of elected officials.
Shumlin’s general counsel, Sarah London, said the Executive Code of Ethics governing gubernatorial appointees already requires up-front disclosure of financial conflicts of interest.
As for mandatory financial disclosures, London said Shumlin “has felt that the voluntary system we have has worked for our small state.”
“But he’s always willing to discus other options when they’re put forward,” London said last week. “We certainly look forward to seeing the proposal, and absolutely welcome continued discussion as to how to make state government as transparent and accountable as possible.”
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