Attorney General William Sorrell praised efforts Tuesday to establish a state ethics commission, but he poked holes in a Senate plan that he said needed reworking.
The Senate Government Operations Committee is drafting a bill to create a five-member commission that would investigate and prosecute violations of conflict of interest rules by members of the executive branch and legislators.
Ethical complaints in the judiciary are policed by the Vermont Supreme Court and would not be under the umbrella of the commission, which would be an executive branch entity. Lawmakers are trying to be careful in drafting the bill to honor the separation between the three branches of government.
Much of the testimony focused on campaign finance law violations, which the attorney general's office currently handles. Sorrell said they were "thankless" probes because the office was often accused of acting in a political way, either prosecuting too hard or too lightly.
"You make no friends in the campaign finance arena when you're making the investigative and enforcement decisions," he said. Often, one party is satisfied until the "lens is turned on that campaign or party and then you're picking on us or whatever."
Sorrell said the commission could serve a valuable role screening cases when a complaint is initially filed and deciding whether to send it for investigation by his office. Then, Sorrell said, the commission could decide after the investigation whether enforcement was warranted, with the penalty being determined again by his office.
Having those two checks on the process, he said, could improve public confidence the investigations were nonpartisan.
"That, I think, could go a long way to easing the complaints that this is a partisan exercise," Sorrell said. He added the commission could be invaluable prioritizing multiple complaints, particularly those filed right before an election.
Sorrell faulted the current approach contemplated by the bill, with the commission acting as "investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury." He also told the Senate committee that it was inappropriate to have an ethics commission funded through penalties it would impose, calling it "bad public policy."
The attorney general noted he had just been cleared of campaign finance allegations by an independent counsel. In addition to how cases would be investigated and prosecuted, Sorrell said he had concerns about which members of the executive branch would be covered by the legislation and what financial interests they would be allowed to have and be required to disclose.
Under the proposal, the five members of the state ethics commission would be selected by an unusual alliance: one each by the chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court, the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Vermont Press Association, the Vermont Bar Association and the Human Rights Commission.
Names of those who are the subject of a complaint would be made public only if a violation were found.
There was discussion during the Senate hearing about whether all state employees and municipal workers should also fall under the ethics commission's purview. The bill currently contemplates only higher-level employees and managers.
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the Senate Government Operations Committee. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
Committee Chairwoman Jeanette White, D-Windham, said the bill focused heavily on conflict of interest and wondered if the scope of ethical behavior should be extended to include criminal behavior.
Chris Winters, deputy secretary of state, said most public servants were honest and that the biggest complaints usually involved conflict of interest claims.
"Corruption does exist in Vermont, believe it or not," he said, noting even in "small doses it can undermine public trust."
The effort to establish a statewide ethics commission is separate from attempts in the House and Senate to create their own ethics rules and commission. A recent Senate committee hearing on establishing a Senate ethics review board blew up over what senators would have to disclose.
One provision in the statewide ethics board proposal would prohibit members of the executive branch and legislators from becoming lobbyists for one year after they leave government.
Much of the criticism of the current Senate bill on the state ethics commission centered on the board being too much of an enforcement vehicle and not focusing enough on education about ethical practices, which could instill good behavior and help people recognize what was wrong.
Madeline Motta, who develops corporate and government ethics programs, said focusing on enforcement may be effective in the short term but that education would produce better long-term results with ethical compliance.
The committee will continue to take testimony Friday. The House is considering its own bill on a state ethics commission.