Activists question if ethics were violated
By LOUIS PORTER Vermont Press Bureau | October 25,2006
MONTPELIER — Two environmental groups are asking Gov. James Douglas to investigate if members of his administration violated his ethics policy during deliberations over how much of the Green Mountain National Forest to designate as wilderness.
According to the groups, documents released by the administration in response to a Conservation Law Foundation request contain evidence that administration officials may have had a conflict of interest, or failed to act even-handedly, when dealing with the issue.
"The governor is quick with a sound-bite criticizing ethical lapses in Washington, but he has failed to investigate potential ethical violations in his own administration," Anthony Iarrapino, a lawyer with the foundation, said Tuesday. "That is hypocritical."
Jason Gibbs, spokesman for Douglas, said an investigation is unnecessary because the governor is convinced there was no such lapse.
"The governor expects and demands that everyone in the administration adheres to the ethics policy, and we believe that everyone has and will continue to," Gibbs said. "This is nothing more than a shallow political stunt."
The wilderness issue pitted the Republican governor against Vermont's congressional delegation in the days before Congress took its pre-election break. The delegation two Independents and one Democrat supported expanding the forest's wilderness area by 48,000 acres. Douglas sought a smaller enlargement.
Congress left Washington, D.C. before taking a vote on a compromise bill that would have added 42,000 acres. Critics claimed Douglas was responsible for the measure's failure because he raised his objections after a bill designating 48,000 acres passed the U.S. Senate.
CLF and Forest Watch asked Douglas on Tuesday to begin an inquiry into whether Tom Torti, former secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, or Jonathan Wood, commissioner of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, violated the state's ethics policy.
In part, the request comes because Torti was considering a job heading the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce business group during part of the time he was working on the wilderness issue.
Partway through the process, Torti removed himself from that discussion after deciding to take the job, but he remained in state government for some time afterward.
Questions of the propriety of Torti's role were brought up last summer by environmental groups as well.
"The administration has never responded with a clear expectation of why the (ethics) code was not violated by the secretary in that situation and many other situations," Iarrapino said.
Gibbs said the request by CLF and Forest Watch has more to do with money than ethics.
"CLF is trying to fabricate a fund-raising issue for their out-of-state donors," Gibbs said. "Vermonters are not going to be fooled by this kind of political, election-year gimmick."
That is a charge Iarrapino rejects.
"Because of the Douglas administration's poor record on the environment the last several years have been a good time for CLF's fund-raising, because people know we are one of the groups out there fighting hard to protect the environment, and it can't be left to the political appointees of the Douglas administration," he said.
Correspondence between Wood, Torti and others involved in the debate over the wilderness issue also show there "was a strong allegiance between the state of Vermont and these anti-wilderness special interests, and a failure to be fair and impartial in promoting the public's interest," according to the letter sent by the environmental groups to Douglas.
That is clear, in part, because the state provided some legal advice to groups that opposed the addition of more acres of wilderness area in the Green Mountain National Forest, according to environmentalists.
"It's disappointing to us that the wilderness issue has not been dealt with fairly or impartially," said Mollie Matteson, deputy director of Forest Watch.
"The Douglas administration has put forth this code of ethics for the behavior of officials in the administration," she said. "There is very strong evidence that that has not been followed."