Commission withdraws gov's conflict-of-interest opinion

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The Vermont State Ethics Commission has withdrawn an advisory opinion that found that Republican Gov. Phil Scott had a conflict of interest with a construction business he once co-owned.

The commission on Wednesday approved the executive director's recommendation to withdraw the Oct. 1, 2018, opinion, saying on its website that the process used then was incorrect.

VTDigger first reported the decision.

The commission found last year that Scott's ties to DuBois Construction were a "conflict of interest" because the firm was continuing to do business with the state. The Vermont Public Interest Group had requested an opinion from the ethics panel.

Scott said Thursday that he was pleased that the commission has taken this step and is taking steps "to prevent its work from being weaponized for political purposes in the future," said his spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley.

Scott sold his 50% stake in DuBois Construction for $2.5 million shortly after he was elected governor in late 2016, Vermont Public Radio reported, but financed the loan that the new owners needed to buy him out.

Seven months after issuing the opinion that found a conflict, the ethics commission changed its guidance, which had not designated who can request an advisory opinion. As of May, it says the request for such an opinion must come from "a state officer or state employee regarding that person's on-going or prospective conduct only" or "on behalf of the Ethics Commission."

Larry Novins, the commission's executive director, said Thursday that third-party requests "create a problem."

Novins added that withdrawing the opinion has no effect on complaints that come into the office. "Anybody who has a complaint in state government they can always make a complaint and then we follow it up and refer it to wherever it needs to go. So the complaint process remains unchanged," he said.

Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, said the governor's conflict of interest remains today and accused the commission of trying to "rewrite history in a way that benefits the powerful and keeps the public in the dark."

"This extraordinary move by the Commission to scrub the record of an opinion that has clear merit is a gross violation of the public trust," he said in an email.

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