S.171 was the next step in years of work in moving Vermont towards having a universal code of ethics. This work started in 2018 when the legislature created the Vermont Ethics Commission that could be an educational resource to lawmakers about ethics issues. While this was a critical step forward, the Commission had no real enforcement powers and even their advisory role was somewhat limited because of the lack of a consistent ethical standard across state government.
This bill created that framework. Campaign for Vermont fought hard to make sure that all three branches of government where covered by this code.
In furthering our vision of an informed and active electorate, we are providing summaries of key bills considered during the 2022 legislative session. S.171 is one of these.
S.171 Bill Summary
As passed, this bill:
- Applies to all elected or appointed individuals but would not prohibit specific departments or agencies from adopting more stringent requirements.
- Does not impede each legislative bodies' ability to judge the election or qualification of any of its members or the Supreme Court's authority over the judicial branch.
- Requires public servants to avoid conflicts of interest or the appearance of such conflicts. Such as matters they are directly or indirectly involved with or their immediate family, member of their household, or business associate is directly or indirectly involved with.
- Legislators should comply with each legislative bodies rules for resolving such conflicts.
- Judicial officers should comply with the Code of Judicial Conduct where a particular conduct falls under both sets of policies.
- Government attorneys will comply with the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct when faced with a conflict under the code of ethics.
- All other public servants should recuse themselves from a matter where a potential conflict occurs. If an official chooses to proceed with a matter, they must prepare a written statement regarding the nature of the conflict and why good cause exists to move forward with the matter.
- A public servant may request either guidance or an advisory opinion from the State Ethics Commission on a matter where potential conflicts exist.
- Public servants shall not direct another person to act in a manner that would be unethical or cause a conflict of interest.
- In addition to conflicts of interest, the bill also prohibits:
- Preferential treatment towards are against any person.
- Misuse of a position.
- Misuse of position.
- Misuse information.
- Misuse of government resources.
- Unauthorized Commitments on behalf of the government.
- Gifts that are more than $150 in value per calendar year.
- Public servants may not seek outside employment is in conflict with their governmental duties.
- This bill also reiterates whistleblower protections and mandatory code of ethics education and training.
Updates From the Last 6 Weeks of the Legislative Session
April 4th Update
The House Government Operations Committee heard from a number of people on Tuesday about S.171. Paul Gillies (constitutional expert) emphasized that this code of ethics was long overdue. The legislature several years ago mandated that all Vermont towns develop their own code of ethics, so its about time that the legislature followed suit.
Paul Burns (Executive Director, Vermont Public Interest Research Group) and Pat McDonald (President, Campaign for Vermont) testified in support of the bill, stressing that all three branches of government should be included; and that ultimately both would like to see an accountability mechanism attached to Vermont’s ethics laws. As drafted, the bill is asking for a simple recusal if a public official believes they may be conflicted or, alternatively, complete a one-page form which is available through the Ethics Commission that explains why the situation does not require recusal. At the end of the day, accountability and transparency protects public officials acting in good faith and preserves the public’s faith in the integrity of our government.
Campaign for Vermont also proposed that all departments and the Ethics Commission come back to report how things are going and to discuss enforcement. The committee thanked us for this suggestion and referenced it several times during subsequent testimony.
See the letter we sent to the Committee this week.
The Committee took this up again on Thursday with Chris Winters (Deputy Secretary of State) and Beth Fastiggi (Commissioner, Department of Human Resources), who both supported the bill in its entirety.
There were two issues which were brought up by Committee members surrounding speaking engagements and loans. There was some concern that the language may prevent meals and travel expenses related to speaking engagements that legislators were invited to from being reimbursed.
One member asked about the fact that our legislature is part time and if that changes any of the rules (it doesn't). The Ethics Commission is researching some of the questions brought forward and will provide answers. We are expecting the bill to be voted out of the Committee within the next couple weeks.
April 10th Update
The House Government Operations Committee seemed very supportive of S.171 on Tuesday, with only a few issues remaining to be resolved. There were some lingering concerns around conflict of interest because the Legislature is part time and most have to work other jobs in order to serve, generally the legislators outside jobs would allow them to perform their core functions so they would already be exempt.
It was agreed that the training provided for in the bill should be for training on the code of ethics specifically, no other ethics training. For the judiciary, training would be coordinated through two entities: the Supreme Court and the Court Administrators Office. The Committee also added an annual reporting requirement for the Ethics Commission to coordinate with departments in state government to report on how things are progressing - particularly in regards to training.
There was also an open-ended discussion about when to report gifts and what other states do. The bill sets a $100 minimum – anything above the $100 should be reported, everything below does not need to be. But, there were questions about whether was (or should be) a cumulative number and who would keep track of it.
The Committee reviewed two amendments on Thursday prior to voting. The first would require the Ethics Commission to include an annual report on training – number of individuals trained, summary of training and summary of comments for improving, expanding changing training. The second amendment was around gifts and free tickets provided to a widely attended events where the legislator attends in his/her official capacity for event participation, food and travel expenses. The example given for this was attendance and National Council of State Legislators events.
All the amendments were agreed to and the bill was voted out of the Committee unanimously.
April 17th Update
The bill creating a universal code of ethics for public officials, S.171, came up for a vote on the House Floor Tuesday. It was emphasized by presenters of the bill that 33 other states have a code of ethics and that this builds off the work they did in 2017 creating an Ethics Commission.
Representative Donahue asked for a clarification around conflicts of interest for physicians and whether the Government Operations Committee had taken testimony around that issue. The Committee hadn't, but experts assured them that the bill is consistent with what other states do and no issues have been reported around this. Representative Till reminded the body that the issue raised a few years ago was around restrictions against drug manufacturers, drug salesmen, device manufacturers, etc. It was a very narrowly defined around who was giving the gifts to a physician and should not impact the state's code of ethics.
The motion to advance the bill to third reading was unanimous. Third reading occurred on Wednesday and the House again voted unanimously to send the bill back to the Senate with approval.
The bill was signed by Governor Scott on May 3rd, 2022
Page last updated 7/5/2022