Albright: Ethical Behavior

Jan 4, 2017

Here in Vermont, we might scoff at the House Republicans for trying to muzzle their own ethics watchdog. But that would be hypocritical, because Vermont is one of only three states without an ethics commission of its own.

And that lack of accountability is one reason our state earned a D+ from the Center for Public Integrity.

But I’m not suggesting that we’re governed by crooks - far from it really. And maybe we haven’t demanded that our elected officials answer to an ethics panel because we’ve never felt the need - or been willing to pay for that kind of oversight. But as we’ve learned since the November election, not everyone agrees on what conflict of interest is – never mind what do to about it.

And the unthinkable does happen. When Franklin County Senator Norm McCallister was arrested in 2015 on the steps of the Statehouse in Montpelier, accused of felony sexual assault, lawmakers seemed to lack a clear road map, because McCallister refused to resign. Eventually, the senate suspended McCallister pending the outcome of his first trial – which ended abruptly when prosecutors dismissed two counts of sexual assault against him. A second trial may still be pending, but McCallister lost the Republican primary in August, effectively taking the whole issue off the legislative agenda. But more broadly, ethics remained a talking point on the campaign trail.

Both Governor-elect Phil Scott and his Democratic opponent, Sue Minter, argued for new legislation designed to hold elected officials accountable for their actions. It’s not clear, to me, at least, what that would look like. And lawmakers don’t seem to be able to move ahead on this front.

An attempt to set up a state ethics commission to review complaints against state office holders - excluding legislators themselves - never made it out of the Government Operations Committee last session, in part, senators said, because they were too busy trying to set up their own ethics panel - which as yet, also does not exist. Some evidently didn’t want to be required to disclose their finances.

Now, I’ve served on college judiciary councils, deciding whether dishonest or violent students should be punished - even expelled. And even little kids take time-outs when they’ve misbehaved.

If we ask our young people to play by rules governing appropriate behavior, surely we can expect transparent self-governance from the adults we send to Washington - and to Montpelier.