• Ethics legislation gains steam, support
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     | February 18,2014
     

    MONTPELIER — A bipartisan group of lawmakers is seeking tougher ethics and financial disclosure requirements for elected and appointed government officials, to be overseen by a new commission.

    With its citizen legislature, Vermont is one of just three states not requiring officials to file financial disclosure forms, according to Stowe Republican Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, lead sponsor of H.846. Additionally, Vermont is one of only eight states without an ethics commission to review complaints, she said.

    “I found that bothersome because there was no entity to which to go if you had a complaint or something that you thought was not on the up-and-up or aboveboard,” she said.

    The bill, with a bipartisan lineup of 23 other co-sponsors, looks to establish ethics rules for elected and appointed officials in the executive branch as well as for members of the Legislature. It would also create the Vermont Ethics Commission and require elected and appointed officials to file financial disclosure forms.

    Scheuermann said she began working on her proposal last year, but it was too late in the session to file the bill. Since then, Campaign For Vermont, an advocacy group of which she is a member, has pushed for ethics reform. Scheuermann said she reviewed the group’s proposal but crafted her own.

    “I certainly contacted them, and they contacted me, and I said I’d be happy to look at their proposal. I modified it,” she said.

    Under the legislation, officials could not use their positions to secure special privileges or exemptions for themselves or family members. The following would also be prohibited:

    — Using state property unless it is reasonably related to his or her official responsibilities or the conduct is allowed by rule or policy of the General Assembly.

    — Taking any official action in a matter in which he or she has a conflict of interest.

    — Taking any official action that materially advances the interest of any person with whom he or she is seeking employment.

    — Disclosing confidential or privileged information obtained as a result of serving as a member of the Legislature unless the disclosure is required by law or necessary to carry out official duties.

    — Trading in stock or conducting private business based upon confidential or privileged information obtained as a result of serving as a member of the General Assembly.

    — Soliciting or receiving a payment, gift, trip or favor of other than nominal value from any person who intends to influence an official decision or action by the member.

    Vermont may not be rife with corruption, Scheuermann said, but should have policies and procedures in place.

    “What I do believe and what I know for a fact is that in politics, perception is reality,” she said. “So, if there is a perceived conflict, that causes problems. That we don’t have a policy in place sends the wrong message to Vermonters. ... The ultimate goal is to make sure that those conflicts don’t happen.”

    Under the bill, all elected and appointed officials earning at least $30,000 a year would have to file a financial disclosure form within 30 days of taking office. The form would be filed with the Vermont Ethics Commission, a five-member panel with subpoena power that would review and adjudicate complaints.

    Finally, the bill would place restrictions on public officials once they leave office.

    A member of the executive branch — either elected or appointed — would face a two-year prohibition on working for a company or group that the person regulated or supervised. The former official also would not be allowed to testify before the Legislature for two years.

    Scheuermann said she is scheduled to introduce her bill to the House Government Operations Committee today. Chairwoman Donna Sweaney, a Windsor Democrat, has been receptive to the legislation, Scheuermann said.

    “She has been proactive in getting me to the committee to introduce it,” Scheuermann said. “She’s really open to looking at it and trying to figure out something that the committee can do.”

    The bill will likely undergo changes as it works its way through the House, according to Scheuermann, who said she hopes the Government Operations Committee “does its due diligence.”

    “We really need to get to the point where we have something on the books that works well,” she said.

    A spokeswoman for Gov. Peter Shumlin did not respond to a request for comment Monday. Scheuermann said most of the prohibited conduct outlined in the bill was based on an executive order Shumlin signed. His order, however, applies only to executive branch appointees and not elected officials.

    “I would assume that they’d be supportive, generally,” Scheuermann said.

    neal.goswami @timesargus.com

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