Vt. bills spur conflict-of-interest questions

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — When George Till, a state representative and a physician, successfully urged his House colleagues earlier this year to pass a Vermont bill removing from the public record cases in which a doctor is accused and then cleared of unprofessional conduct charges, no one in the House spoke up to question the propriety of a legislator advocating a bill that could one day benefit himself.

When Rep. Ronald Hubert made an impassioned speech last year against a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, none of his colleagues rose to point out that he owns a convenience store in Milton that sells the drinks.

Whether these or similar instances amount to improper conflicts of interest has been much discussed since a think tank report bemoaning Vermont's lack of a state ethics commission, conflict-of-interest laws, and financial disclosure of outside income by public officials.

A bill filed by Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, that would create a Vermont Ethics Commission with the power to levy fines against those found in violation of what would be a new ethics code, is not expected to pass this year.

But House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown, said he has appointed a special panel of House members to determine if an existing House rule governing conflicts of interest needs strengthening and to possibly craft a new financial disclosure form for lawmakers.

Vermont's lack of an ethics commission won it an "F'' for ethics enforcement in the State Integrity Investigation, a joint project of good-government and media groups. The Better Government Association gave it a "0'' for its lack of conflict-of-interest laws.

The Campaign For Vermont think tank recently reported that corruption is rife in the state.

"Politicians and civil servants have exploited the lack of structure — and Vermont's public trust — for their own personal gain in greater proportion than in any other state in the country," it said.

Legislators say the picture is far from dire.

Vermont's part-time Legislature, which generally meets from January to early May and pays members less than $12,000 a year, has a large number of members who have outside jobs, some with organizations that have big legislative agendas.

Smith's Burlington law firm represents Fletcher Allen Health Care, the state's largest hospital. Rep. Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, is director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, which gets state funding.

Smith said he doesn't see the need for ethics legislation this year, but would support new House rules.

"I think it makes sense for us to have a disclosure form to let people know what our employment is, and organizations we're involved with, and that we sign a statement saying that we'll recuse ourselves from matters that directly affect us from a financial perspective," the speaker said in an interview.

He said he did not see the need for an ethics commission in Vermont. "New Jersey has an ethics commission," Smith said of a state with a reputation marred by political corruption. "It's done a lot," he added, smiling.

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