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June 22, 2012

In a Citizen Legislature, Should a Top Politician Go to Work for a Power Company?

Is it okay for the majority leader of the Vermont House of Representatives to take a "community relations" job with the state's dominant power company? A company that just two months ago fought tooth-and-nail to kill a House bill that would have forced it to return $21 million to ratepayers?

That's the question after Rep. Lucy Leriche (D-Hardwick) confirmed to the Vermont Press Bureau this week that she's accepted a temporary gig with Green Mountain Power, the state's largest electric utility. Leriche announced weeks earlier that she won't seek reelection this fall, but she remains House majority leader until January. In her new role at GMP, Leriche will work with local and state officials to coordinate the company's construction of the controversial Kingdom Community Wind project in Lowell.

"Welcome to Vermont," says Secretary of State Jim Condos. "A person has a right to work for a living — as long as they're well aware of any lines that might occur, as far as conflicts of interest. Vermont's a small place."

Condos would know. For years, while serving as state senator, Condos held down a job at Vermont Gas Systems,* which, like Green Mountain Power, is owned by Montreal-based Gaz Metro. These days, Vermont Gas' spokesman is a guy by the name of Stephen Wark, a former deputy commissioner of the Department of Public Service, which regulates utilities, and a one-time flack for former Gov. Jim Douglas.

Other former top officials in the Gaz Metro empire? How about Robert Dostis, GMP's top lobbyist and former chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee? Or Neale Lunderville, GMP's recently-departed director of enterprise innovation, who was Douglas' secretary of administration? Or David Coriell, the guy Leriche is replacing at GMP, who also served as a Douglas flack?

To Wally Roberts, executive director of the good government group Common Cause, the ever-revolving door between industry and government in Vermont is problematic. He says the state "falls back on its tradition of small town acquaintanceships and the feeling that everybody in state government should be trusted."

"That was true in the past, but that kind of attitude is not appropriate anymore," he continues. "It's a faith that was maybe appropriate in some bygone era, but I think big money has started to come into Vermont elections."

Roberts is drafting legislation that would create an enforceable ethics code for top officials in all three branches of state government. Among its provisions would be a mandatory "cooling-off period" between when an official leaves state government and takes a position with a company over which he or she once had authority. Currently, the only restriction in the House governing outside employment is a rule asking members to voluntarily recuse themselves from voting when they have a direct financial interest in the matter at hand.

As to Leriche's case, Roberts says, "It's exactly the kind of situation that an ethics code would prevent, assuming it had some teeth. It's really an abuse of power and it should be prohibited."

The cause for complaint is this: Green Mountain Power, a regulated utility, constantly has business before the legislature. Just months ago, the company became embroiled in a legislative battle over its proposed merger with Central Vermont Public Service, which was approved just last week. At the time, legislators sought to force the company to return to customers $21 million it had collected a decade before when faced with bankruptcy. 

While the Senate nearly unanimously passed a provision mandating that the company return the dough, House leadership fought a similar effort and killed it by a vote of 54-87. Leriche herself voted against forcing a payback.

Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset), who fought GMP on the issue, says the company has "pretty much bought off every lobbyist in the building and hired up every influential politician from both parties. That should be a concern to a lot of people."

According to Komline, Leriche's new gig poses a conflict because, as majority leader, she continues to wield influence in her caucus and continues to raise money for House Dems, who may feel indebted to her — and her new employer.

"If I were doing it, I would have stepped away from the House," Komline says.

GMP, Leriche and her supporters see it quite differently. For one thing, they say, it's a temporary job — slated to last three or four months — and her role will primarily be to coordinate with municipal officials the delivery of wind tower components to Lowell.

"We're entering a time when we really need to have a lot of communication with the communities up there because we're bringing up all the turbine parts," says GMP spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure, noting that it's Leriche's Kingdom connections, not her legislative ones, that make her a valuable hire. "She would be great at doing that job and we're really pleased to have her."

Says Leriche, "The degree to which I'm an insider has to do with that I'm a local to the area."

Furthermore, Leriche says that while she herself voted against forcing GMP to return the $21 million to ratepayers, she did not lobby her colleagues on the matter. And, she adds, negotiations with GMP over the temporary position did not begin until at least a month after the legislature adjourned.

"I was not influencing or trying to influence anybody else's vote on that," she says.

House Speaker Shap Smith says that because the legislature has adjourned for the year, it's highly unlikely that any GMP business would cross Leriche's official desk.

"There's nothing right now going forward that will implicate anything that she's doing with Green Mountain Power," he says. "I think it's a decision that she and Green Mountain Power have to make and have to determine whether they feel comfortable with it. I don't think it impacts any legislative business going forward."

Leriche says she gave the matter plenty of consideration.

"I did talk to Robert Dostis about it and asked if there might be any conflict, and we discussed it and just didn't come up with anything," she says.

To Leriche and Smith, the question comes down to this: How do you balance the interest of the public and that of elected officials who work in that capacity for just four months a year and earn a pittance while doing so?

"I think Vermont is a special place. We have a citizen legislature here. So how do you really separate that? Do you say to a legislator, 'You have to give up your job?'" Leriche asks. "I can see how people would feel that way in big states with campaigns that cost millions of dollars and have full-time legislatures — places that are corrupt — but, I mean, this is Vermont. This is a small place. Everyone uses their connections to get jobs."

Leriche isn't the only legislator working for an entity — be it a school, a hospital or a nonprofit — with business before the state.

"We have inn owners voting on whether tipped workers should have an increase in the minimum wage. We have state employees who are voting on the pay act. So, I mean, that's sort of the give and take of having a citizen legislature," Smith says. "I think that people have to make up their own mind what's appropriate and what's not. It's a self-regulating situation."

Smith says he would entertain a discussion within the House about enacting some sort of additional safeguards to protect the public interest — such as financial disclosure or a temporary ban on departing House members lobbying their former colleagues.

"I think the issue is brought into more clarity if the role is one where somebody is going to be working to influence policy within the legislature, and I do think there is an appropriate cooling-off period," he says.

But Smith wants to be sure that any additional regulations don't wind up discouraging potential candidates from running for office — a task that many Vermonters already view as thankless.

"I think it's appropriate for us to have a discussion in the legislature about what's appropriate and whether we want to set a policy in that regard, and I don't know what the right answer is, quite frankly," he says.

Got any good examples of conflicts-of-interest in the legislature? Send 'em to paul (at) sevendaysvt.com.

*Correction: Jim Condos served as manager of public affairs at Vermont Gas Systems from 2001 through 2008, while serving in the Senate. But he did not become a registered lobbyist for the company until 2009, when he left the legislature and was promoted to manager of government and community relations.

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