Vermont is one of three states that don’t require their elected officials to disclose their financial interests. But a new organization being bankrolled by a former Wall Street executive says that needs to change.
Bruce Lisman came on the political scene in Vermont only about two years ago. But he’s trying to use his personal fortune to fast track his influence.
The Vermont native has spent more than $1 million of his own money on Campaign for Vermont. He’s using the organization to advocate for a range of public policy changes. And this year, Lisman has his sights focused squarely on Vermont’s ethics laws, or lack thereof.
“I think this is an easy one, because how we behave in government matters more today than any time in my living memory,” he said.
Lisman wants the state’s six statewide officials, including the governor, to tell Vermonters how much they earn, and where their money comes from. He also wants legislators and statewide office holders to disclose any potential conflicts of interest, such as stock holdings in companies that do business in Vermont.
Allen Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He’s spent years advocating for more financial transparency among elected officials.
“In 47 other states, financial disclosure is not viewed as unusual at all,” he said. “We don’t realize how exceptional Vermont has become in not requiring even basic financial disclosure of statewide candidates. I mean we’re really far, far off in not requiring that.”
Gov. Peter Shumlin voluntarily disclosed the kind of information being sought by Lisman and Gilbert during his first two gubernatorial campaigns. He says he supports the move to make the disclosures mandatory.
“It’s just important for the public to know, when you’re going to be the chief executive of the state or frankly be in involved in making laws for a state what assets you have and what conflicts you might have,” the governor said.
House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown), however, says he wants to look for evidence of a problem before legislating a solution.
“The question is do we have a problem here in Vermont with people that have conflicts of interest, and I don’t think we know the answer to that question,” Smith said. “My view of the world is we ought to actually ask, what is the problem that we have? And then, how are we going to solve it?”
Bill Schubart is a political commentator and retired businessman who joined Lisman Thursday in calling for the ethics reforms. He says the argument traditionally used against disclosure laws in Vermont don’t hold up.
“I’ve lived in Vermont all my life and I’ve heard all the arguments against this – you know, we trust we all know each other, we’re all accessible to one another,” Schubart said. “And frankly, it’s nonsense.”
Lisman is generally regarded warily among politicians in Montpelier, where many believe he’s using Campaign for Vermont as a platform for own political ambition. But Lisman has denied any interest in higher office.
Lisman is currently seeking a paid executive director for his organization, and says he’ll ramp up lobbying efforts in the Statehouse this year to pass ethics legislation.