For the third time, Stowe’s only representative in the Vermont House is urging her colleagues to take a strong stand against conflicts of interest.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, a Republican, has introduced a bill that establishes a code of conduct for legislators and statewide appointed officials, and would set up a five-member ethics commission that would receive and investigate ethics complaints from Vermonters.
The state senate was on the verge of endorsing a much weaker bill on Wednesday.
Scheuermann has introduced this bill twice already — in 2013 and again in 2015. In 2013, her efforts were solo; in 2015, she had a little more support.
Scheuermann started crafting her ethics bill after seeing a few situations she thought could be perceived as conflicts of interest.
“I’m not accusing anyone of doing anything inappropriate,” she said; instead, she wants to address the appearance of impropriety, which, in many cases, can translate into just as much damage as an actual conflict.
Scheuermann thinks conflicts of interest, either real or perceived, erode people’s trust in their elected officials.
“I’ve been in politics long enough that I understand very well, as do many, that the perception of a conflict of interest is as important as an actual conflict, and that’s why we want to make sure that we have something in place when something like that happens,” Scheuermann said.
“Politics should be viewed nobly. Politicians are public servants. Instead, it has been reduced to the butt of late-night talk show hosts’ jokes. In many cases, rightly.
“That perception of conflict of interest is there and that’s really problematic in my view. … Obviously there’s a lot of anxiety or concern at the national level and I understand that. Vermonters would feel a great deal of comfort if we had something like this in place that was a substantive policy and a process through which people will understand that when conflicts arise that it’s out there in the open, or when perceptions arise, you know that this is on the up and up. That will give Vermonters greater confidence in Vermont,” Scheuermann said.
She doesn’t think the Senate proposal is tough enough. “Many senators have made it clear that they don’t believe (an ethics code) is necessary but they’re going to do one. The problem is what they’re doing has no teeth and it’s not adequate in my book,” she said. “I’m hopeful that if it passes, then the House will do something here, but I don’t want to just do something to say we passed an ethics bill. I would hope that it would be something meaningful.”
Her bill would block legislators from voting or taking official action when they might have a conflict of interest on the topic, anything from using state property for personal use to influencing legislation on behalf of a company they want to work for, Scheuermann said.
Why hasn’t her bill been passed yet? Scheuermann can’t say for sure. In part, as a Republican in a Legislature dominated by Democrats, it can be tough to gain traction on a particular issue.
But she thinks it’s because Vermonters believe in an honor code — that is to say, it’s a small state, everybody knows everybody, the necessary transparency is already there, so why legislate it?
“I think it’s because — and this has been the argument, ever since I first started advocating for this — many people haven’t seen the need. They argue that we’re a small state so people like me are very accessible and right out in the community, which is true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that transparency and accountability are necessarily there,” Scheuermann said.
This year, Scheuermann is more confident that her bill is gaining ground.
“I feel better about the chance now,” Scheuermann said. “I testified; the committee invited me in last week. It was a really good discussion. People who had had some reservations in the past seemed more inclined at this point. That I was pleased with.”