At top, Richard Cowart, Darren Springer, and Jared Duval of the Vermont Climate Council; Bottom left, Rep. Laura Sibilia; at right, Megan Cluver.
By Guy Page
Possible conflicts of interest involving appointed and elected Vermont officials have surfaced in three high-profile areas involving expensive, high-tech changes in how Vermonters learn, communicate and stay warm.
Possible Conflict of interest #1 – Megan Cluver and the college digital library transformation
The Vermont State College Board wants to make its college libraries (almost) all-digital. Megan Cluver, board vice-chair, has spent the last 15 years leading the education technology transformation team for Deloitte, a huge international player in the tech transformation industry. Writes Alison Despathy in today’s Vermont Daily Chronicle: “Megan Cluver is a high ranking Deloitte consultant with access to a wide variety of Deloitte’s digital services. This coupled with the fact that Cluver is also working in an influential position on the VSCS board has raised red flags for many. Questions related to the intention behind the hybrid university and “all-digital” library decisions, who will host the platforms and if it will actually serve the students and community are at the forefront.”
Possible conflict of interest #2 – Rep. Laura Sibilia’s membership on the Vermont Community Broadband Board.
In 2021, the Legislature created the board and last year allocated $100 million in mostly federal funds to develop broadband coverage statewide. Sibilia, an independent from Dover, led the effort to pass the law. She is unquestionably the Legislature’s expert on, and greatest advocate for, statewide internet service. She was appointed to the board, even though the law forbids sitting legislators to serve as a legislative appointee. Sibilia instead was appointed to represent the Communications Union Districts (CUDs), the regional organizations created to implement statewide internet coverage.
Sibilia says she’s been assured she’s not in violation of any ethics rules or state laws. “I’ve triple checked,” she assured Vermont Daily Chronicle earlier this month.
Yet Sibilia remains not only on the legislature’s broadband’s legislative oversight committee but, as vice-chair, holds a leadership position. Reports, spending, and policy changes for the CUDs and the Broadband Board eventually go through her Environment and Energy Committee for review, approval or both.
And that’s what concerns Stephen Whitaker, a Montpelier resident and one-person internet service State House advocate. Like Sibilia, he’s well-informed on the arcane details of the state’s broadband plan in all of its eye-glazing complexity. But he sometimes differs on what’s best – and says Sibilia the Legislator can steer committee conversations in ways that suit Sibilia the Broadband Board Member and CUD representative.
“So when this blatant appearance of conflict was raised by many legislators, senior legislators stated unequivocally that this was wrong. It smelled, it needed to be changed,” Whitaker wrote to VDC Friday. “She needed to not be inserting herself in such a conflicted position or the legislation should be changed to explicitly extend the prohibition on legislators serving on the Broadband board to the [CUD] appointment.”
That didn’t happen. The law remains unchanged. Sibilia remains in a legislative leadership oversight position.
“How can anyone claim that the conflict of interest doesn’t extend to suppressing oversight by lobbing softball questions at the witnesses, and discouraging any questions from those members of the legislature who don’t share in her inside knowledge, and have to take her word that there’s no issue there,” Whitaker said. “They are made aware that she knows from inside knowledge, and they not only don’t know, but don’t need to know.”
Possible conflict of interest #3 – Renewable industry representatives on the Vermont Climate Council and in the Legislature.
In yet another high-tech, extremely expensive effort to transform Vermont, the Vermont Legislature created the Vermont Climate Council to devise a plan requiring the State of Vermont meet strict carbon emission reduction goals. As reported by Rob Roper in Behind The Lines last week, Climate Council appointees include a renewable power consultant whose firm stands to earn big money, a head of a renewable power lobby group whose members stand to earn big money, and the general manager of a fuel/renewable power/weatherization provider that stands to earn big money if the so-called ‘Affordable Heating Act’ becomes law.
Renewable power advocates point out that many other occupations – farmers and teachers, for example – seem to get a ‘pass’ on committee appointments. Is there no conflict of interest there, also? Why pick on just them?
It’s almost impossible to prove conflict of interest. As a practical matter, it can be difficult to avoid.
Often, Vermont’s elected leaders respond to conflict of interest concerns with four words: “we’re a small state.”
For example, see how Gov. Phil Scott answered at his Feb. 7 press conference when VDC asked him about a Sibilia’s apparent conflict of interest:
“We have House and legislative ethics policies, and I’m sure that they will react accordingly if they think there’s a conflict of any sort. I believe that the House leadership will take that into account. I also have a great deal of faith in Representative Sibilia to do the right thing, so I don’t have any question about her capabilities or her sitting in the house in the legislature. We have a number of folks in the legislature that have – you know, we’re a small state – have some conflicts.”
The oft-repeated idea suggests that Vermont is just too small a state to expect to find experts who also don’t have a possible self-interest. We make do with what we have, and who we have.
Except when we choose not to. For example, the proposed Burlington City Charter change establishing a civilian review board over police specifically prohibits anyone who is, or has, worked in law enforcement. One may question the wisdom of that proposed policy, but it’s clear that its framers saw the potential for conflict of interest and seek to prevent it. For that matter, so did the framers of the 2021 broadband law. They recognized that lawmakers shouldn’t be representing the Legislature on an executive branch planning and implementation board.
So far, no-one besides Whitaker, Despathy and Roper have publicly expressed concern about these alleged conflicts of interest. The House Ethic Board has no meetings scheduled, nor has it met during the 2023 session.
Conflicts of interest have been a matter of debate since government began. Time will tell if in Vermont, they become an issue for government review and action.
Categories: State Government