As previously advertised, yesterday I had the pleasure of observing the inaugural meeting of the Vermont Ethics Commission. As one would expect in a first meeting, most of the discussion was centered around the nuts and bolts of the work that the Commission has before it in the months ahead. Since the Commission, like most similarly situated entities in Vermont are volunteers who get compensated for milage, lunch, a $50 per diem and a hardy “thank you for your public service” the most pressing issue facing the Commission is hiring a Executive Director, who will carry out the vast majority of the Commission’s day to day functions.
So what does the Commission do? At the onset, not all that much. The enabling statute really sets out more of an advisory, gatekeeper roll, with no enforcement powers. While the Commission will have the ability to accept and screen ethics complaints, any complaint with legs will need to be referred out to the appropriate regulatory entity. Since the Commission is an independent (in that it does not report to the Governor) entity of the Executive Branch, compliance with referrals to the legislature (based on allegations concerning legislators) and judiciary (based on allegations concerning government attorneys and judges) is essentially based on the good will of the receiving branch of government. Campaign finance questions get referred to the Attorney General (or theoretically State’s Attorney, but this seems unlikely) and allegations in respect to the to-be-drafted Department of Human Resources’ (DHR) Employee Code of Ethics get sent to Department.
FUN FACT: The DHR is in the process of drafting its own Code of Ethics, at the same time the Commission is charged with drafting a State Code of Ethics in consultation with DHR. Did you follow that? Two codes of ethics. Why do we need two codes of ethics regulating state employees you ask? Well it seems that at least the Commission’s Code will be more of an aspirational guideline, then something that can be used for enforcement purposes.
Another provision of the law concerns the “required” disclosure by candidates for statewide and legislative offices of: 1) sources of personal income; 2) 10% or greater corporate ownership; 3) leases and contracts with the State; 4) a copy of the IRS 1040 tax returns; and 5) any board that the candidate sits on. Oh and most of these provisions also apply to the candidate’s spouse/domestic partner (a wrinkle that begs for its own blog post). But here’s the kicker, although the controlling statute states that the candidate “shall” file these disclosures, there is no penalty for not filing the disclosures. Evidently the legislature decided to leave it to the political process, instead of the legal process to figure out the effect of non-compliance.
One of the more perplexing outtakes of the meeting is that the Commission can provide written “guidance” to officers and employees, but that the guidance received is confidential (thus creating an exemption to the Vermont Public Records Act) unless the requestor decides to make it public. Now I can understand taking out identifying information (name, agency, etc.) in the guidance, but I would think it is ultimately of fundamental importance that the public be informed of the type of ethics advice being provided by the Commission, to state employees. At the most basic level, if this information is withheld how is the public supposed to evaluate whether the Commission is serving its intended purpose? Especially since in this instance it appears as though that purpose is focused on education and training, rather than penalties and enforcement. When I raised this issue on Twitter, the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office chimed in about encouraging employees to ask for help and acknowledged that in respect to the Public Records Act “transparency isn’t always the answer…some exceptions are ok.” This was an interesting and appreciated comment from an office currently on its 4th annual Transparency Tour. More thoughts on this in an upcoming post.
The Commission has its work cut out for it. Hiring a Executive Director; convincing the public that education and training (rather than enforcement) will be enough; and getting a viable, working entity up and running by January 1, 2018 (the date the powers of the Commission go into effect). I for one am looking forward to following the Commission’s progress to see if it can succeed in this endeavor, within the parameters it’s been given.