The House Government Operations Committee returned to two draft ethics bills on Wednesday. Jaye Pershing Johnson (General Counsel, Governor's Office) was up first, speaking to the good working relationship the Administration has with Ethics Commission. The Administration has no opposition to draft except to note that the Sheriffs already have a financial disclosure requirement. They believe these requirements should be equal and apply to all. Pershing Johnson had one caution however, which was that historically requirements for financial disclosures have a tendency to discourage folks from serving if the burden of disclosure is too great. She suggested that the Legislature might want to avoid giving the appearance of ‘weaponizing’ the Commission.
Christina Sivret (Executive Director, Vermont State Ethics Commission) provided a summary of the bill. The following is an excerpted copy of the summary. The purpose of the bill is to require that certain county officers both running for and holding office file financial disclosures. it would also create penalties for delinquent disclosures for candidates for State office, county office, State Senator, and State Representative.
The bill would grant the State Ethics Commission powers to perform supplemental investigations and hearings and to issue warnings, reprimands, and recommended actions if there is a finding that a violation has occurred. It would also create a full-time, exempt Legal Counsel position in the State Ethics Commission and reclassify the Executive Director of the State Ethics Commission from a part-time to a full-time State employee. As their scope would be expanding to municipalities, an additional member would be Added to the Ethics Commission that would be appointed by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
Current disclosure requirements include:
- Candidates for State office, State Senator, or State Representative must file financial disclosures.
- While in office, executive officers (Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Treasurer, Secretary of State, Auditor of Accounts, Attorney General, and agency secretaries, commissioners, and deputies under the Governor) file similar financial disclosures.
Current duties of the State Ethics Commission include:
- Making referrals and tracking complaints of alleged violations of:
- Governmental conduct regulated by law
- Of the Department of Human Resources Personnel Policy and Procedure Manual
- State campaign finance law
- Providing ethics training
- Issue guidance and advisory opinions regarding ethical conduct
The disclosure requirements for all office holders would be tightened to include:
- Sources of personal income:
- The names of any clients who had business before any municipal or State office, department, or agency during the previous 12 months.
- The names of clients from whom the candidate has received $10,000.00 or more in the previous 12 months.
- Investment income, including individual stock holdings or investments valued at $10,000.00 or more at any point in the previous 12 months.
- Membership on any Boards, commissions, or other entities that make decisions about the allocation or disbursement of State funds over the previous 12 months.
- Loans made to a company if the candidate owned more than 10% of that company and if the loan was not commercially reasonable and made in the ordinary course of business.
- Companies in which the candidate had an ownership or controlling interest in the previous 12 months that had business with the State or municipality.
- The full name of the candidate’s spouse or domestic partner.
The bill would empower the State Ethics Commission to independently investigate and hold hearings regarding ethics complaints. Based on the findings of the investigation, it can issue warnings, reprimands, and other recommended actions. This could include facilitated mediation, additional training and education, referrals to counseling and wellness support, or other remedial actions. The individual against whom the complaint is brought is afforded a right to be heard at the hearing, notice of investigation and hearings, and the result of any investigation. The complainant shall also have the right to be heard.
Another provision in the bill would require those entities to which the Commission refers complaints to report back annually “with aggregate data on ethics complaints not submitted to the Commission, with the complaints separated by topic, and the disposition of those complaints, including any prosecution, enforcement action, or dismissal.” Those reporting entities include the office of the Attorney General and State’s Attorneys’ offices, the Department of Human Resources, the House and Senate Ethics Panels, the Judicial Conduct Board, the Professional Responsibility Board, and the Office of the State Court Administrator.