VLS Prof To Head Ethics Commission
Novins Builds On Legal Experience
An adjunct professor at Vermont Law School (VLS) has been appointed as the new executive director of the Vermont Ethics Commission.
Larry Novins, who teaches evening courses at VLS, began work last week, following the resignation of the previous executive director, Brian Leven, who expressed frustration with how the fledgling commission had handled an ethics complaint against Gov. Phil Scott earlier this year.
Declining to comment on the departure of his predecessor, Novins said his priorities upon entering the new position centered on building up the commission as an educational resource for state employees and the legislature—compiling a body issues and opinions for future reference.
“My goal would be to increase awareness of the role of ethics in effective government,” said Novins in a telephone interview on Thursday. “[We hope] to be an educational resource for people in the government and citizens of Vermont, to answer the inquiries that we get so that we can put together a body of examples of things that would be either ethical or unethical conduct.”
Novins arrives at the ethics commission with 18 years of experience as public defender and 14 years of service in the Vermont Office of Professional Regulation, where he drafted legislation and administrative rules for professions requiring state licenses.
“I think my career was dedicated, in large part, to making sure the government acted according to accepted principals and that people were treated fairly,” he said. “I see this work as the logical extension of what I have done in the past. The subject matter is somewhat different, there’s certainly a big learning curve for me in terms of finding out how other states have handled some of the situations that we’ll see.”
An Uphill Battle
Learning from other states will remain an important aspect of Novins’ new position. Until this year, Vermont was one of only three states without an ethics commission, earning an “F” grade and ranking last in the nation for ethics enforcement, 48th for executive accountability, 49th for legislative accountability, and 43rd for internal auditing in a 2015 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity—a government accountability watchdog group.
“Everybody has known in the past that ethics really is a strong component to good government. By formally recognizing that and formally adopting or creating a commission, we are giving voice to that belief and taking a large step,” said Novins. “[We’re] bringing it to the forefront so people can think about it, be aware of it, and hopefully consider ethics—the pros and cons of any particular action—before they act.”
Another important goal for Novins in the coming year is the acquisition of investigatory powers and resources for the commission, which lacked those powers this year when it determined that Gov. Scott had violated the state code of ethics through his continuing relationship with Dubois Construction.
I think at some point, [investigators] will be necessary,” said Novins. “If we don’t have some kind of investigatory abilities, then we’re really forced to accept allegations at face value. I don’t see that as being fair to the people whose conduct is being questioned or to the public. We’re asked to opine on things and I would not want to do that based on bad information or misleading information.”
Ultimately, Novins hopes to create a top-of-mind culture of ethics in Vermont that fosters a more positive perspective on the workings, and workers, of government.
“It’s also really critical to consider how ethics affects peoples’ view of how our government is working,” he said. “When we have a strong ethics component, the voters, the citizens, the people of our state can have more confidence in what the state is doing and how we’re doing it.
“I think creating a culture which is not implicit, but explicit, is really critical,” said Novins. “That is one of the big tasks of the ethics commission.”