Paul Burns: Gov. Scott cannot sidestep his ethical conflict

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Gov. Phil Scott's ongoing financial stake in his former business — a business that continues to seek lucrative contracts with the state — violates Vermont's new code of ethics. That is the clear position of Vermont's independent Ethics Commission, as stated in an advisory opinion issued earlier this month.

But Gov. Scott has said that he will ignore the Ethics Commission and its opinion about his conflict of interest. Instead of taking steps to mitigate the ethical violation, he said he'll let voters decide "whether this is an issue or not."

This is a mistake. And it serves only to undermine public trust in government at a time when it is sorely needed.

Recall that Vermont was ranked 50th of the 50 states in 2015 by the Center for Public Integrity on the issue of ethics enforcement, largely because we were one of just three states without any sort of ethics commission.

In 2016, when then-Lt. Gov. Scott was running for governor, he reluctantly acknowledged that it would be a conflict if he served as governor while owning a construction company that bid for very large state contracts. So, he said he'd sell his share of the business if elected.

The trouble is, the governor's plan to eliminate the conflict was flawed from the start. He sold his stake back to the company — DuBois Construction — but he financed the deal himself instead of having the company go the traditional route of getting a bank loan. That means the governor will get regular payments from DuBois over the next 15 years or so, covering the $2.5 million Scott is owed.

The fact that his arrangement failed to solve the conflict was pointed out immediately.

"The problem here is that by financing the sale of his business, the governor's receipt of the money he is owed depends on the business succeeding," said Paul Seamus Ryan, in a January 2017 interview with Vermont Public Radio. Ryan worked for Common Cause, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on government corruption and abuses of power. Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen, added at the same time that Scott's plan "simply doesn't cut it."

Whether he was given bad legal advice or simply didn't care about solving the problem, Scott chose to ignore the criticisms.

Meanwhile, the Legislature was finally ready to take up the issue of ethics reform in early 2017. One week after being sworn into office, Gov. Scott pledged that his administration would strictly adhere to the state's code of ethics.

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Three months later, as the House of Representatives debated legislation to create a state ethics commission, Scott declared his support, telling the Associated Press that, "I've said we need an ethics bill, so I'm fine with it, whatever they come up with."

It turns out though, that Gov. Scott would not be fine with it — at least not once it affected him.

He's attacking the independent ethics commission instead, as though it's their fault that he chose not to resolve his ethical conflict when it became clear almost two years ago.

He's also attacking the Vermont Public Interest Research Group by falsely claiming that we raised the issue in October for political impact. He knows better. VPIRG officially raised the issue with the Ethics Commission back in January of this year, but we were informed that without a code of ethics in place, the commission could do nothing.

The official State Code of Ethics was adopted over the summer, and after researching the code, the governor's actions and the contract that DuBois now has with the state, VPIRG filed a request for an advisory opinion from the commission in late August.

The final response from the commission was promptly delivered on October 1. Among other findings, it noted that the governor "has a conflict of interest because he is financially intertwined as a creditor, who has an ongoing financial interest in a company that contract(s) with the State, which the public official as governor is the chief executive officer."

Neither the clear and compelling opinion of the commission, nor the timing of its decision should have been a surprise to the governor or his administration.

Yet, Scott's government lawyer, Jaye Pershing Johnson, was left to argue that the $75,000 per year that Scott gets from DuBois is not "an item of monetary value." As ridiculous as that claim may seem, it's the only way the governor can argue that the arrangement is not in clear violation of the ethics code.

In the end, this is really less about the mistakes Gov. Scott made in getting to this point than it is about what he does from here. Let's assume he was serious when he said he wanted to eliminate his conflict, and when he said he'd abide by the state's ethics code too.

Now that he's been made aware that his plan fell short, will he solve the problem as he once pledged that he would? Or will he continue to try to blame others and avoid taking personal responsibility?

Paul Burns is executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, or VPIRG.


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