Stowe ethicist chosen to head new commission

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The five-member State Ethics Commission picked an ethics consultant from Stowe as its chair at the panel's first meeting Wednesday.

Madeleine Motta won unanimous support from her fellow board members. She testified several times as the bill establishing the commission was being debated in the Legislature. A corporate ethics consultant, she has studied bioethics and formerly worked in the Agency of Human Services.

"I'm passionate about ethics. I'm passionate in a big way. I always have been," she said.

The other four panel members are: Christopher Davis, a Burlington attorney and former chair of the Judicial Conduct Board; Julie Hulburd, Winooski Human Resources Manager; Suzanne Lowensohn, a UVM business professor; Sarah Biolsi Vangel, a Brattleboro attorney.

At the organizational meeting, held at the Statehouse, the commissioners received an overview of Act 79 establishing the commission from legislative counsel BetsyAnn Wrask. Their most immediate task is to hire a part-time executive director. The commission officially starts in Jan 1.

The chairs of the key House and Senate committee that worked on the bill told the panel about the several-year effort to win passage over resistance from some lawmakers.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, described the commission as a compromise between those who wanted a robust panel with investigative and enforcement powers and those who felt a commission was unnecessary. Rep. Maida Townsend, D-South Burlington, said some lawmakers objected to disclosing personal financial information.

The commission will take in complaints and refer them to the appropriate agency, including the attorney general, state Human Resources Department, the judiciary or the House and Senate Ethics Committees. The state commission will also document the complaints and report their number and nature to the Legislature once a year. It will have no investigative or enforcement powers. The total budget is $100,000.

In an interview, Motta said the board would likely evolve over time, perhaps requiring more staff and authority, but said for now having one place where people could file complaints was a major first step.

"I think we'll be coming back on the bill in the future. I think that the commission has a lot of work to do and we have some good expertise here and I think we'll make it as robust as we can. I anticipate we'll come back and build up the program more," Motta said.

Motta said the commission's greatest value was the public "knowing there's somewhere you can call."

The law also places requirements on politicians and top level administrative officials in the executive branch, including a ban on lobbying for one year after they leave office. In addition, candidates running for statewide office and for the Legislature will have to disclose sources of income they and their spouse/domestic partner have of $5,000 or more and companies they have an interest in. The law also intends to stop "pay to play" by prohibiting contractors holding or seeking high-value state contracts from making political donations to certain candidates. It also prohibits candidates from accepting donations from contractors too.

The commission will also develop a state code of ethics. The law also requires cities and towns to adopt ethical standards. Officials with the Vermont secretary of State say conflict-of interest questions and complaints about municipal officials is a common concern.

However, the ethics commission's power is limited. For example, there is no penalty for a candidate not filing a financial report except for public backlash.

Townsend was giddy as she told commissioners they were "the beginning of life being breathed into what was previously just words on paper."

The commission, she said, was "long overdue."

Vermont was one of five states without a commission when Gov. Phil Scott signed the bill in June.

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