(Host) Natural Resources Secretary Tom Torti has decided to leave his position at the end of the month, not in November as originally planned.
Torti says he wants to defuse a controversy about potential conflicts of interest. His new employer, the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, has regulatory issues before the Agency of Natural Resources.
VPR’s John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) Torti says the controversy over his new job was distracting attention away from his work on Governor Jim Douglas’ environmental agenda.
A number of environmental groups questioned whether Torti should stay on as Natural Resources Secretary for four months before he took over as president of the Burlington-area Chamber of Commerce. They said the new job posed a conflict for Torti as a public official, since the chamber represents business groups on regulatory and policy issues before the agency.
Torti says he had walled himself off from any conflicts.
(Torti) “We had a number of contingencies in place to ensure there were no conflicts of interest, either real or perceived. But to the extent this was continuing to be a news story, and to the extent this was going to continue to distract us from dealing with the environmental issues before us, it makes sense to me to move up my termination.”
(Dillon) The Vermont Public Interest Research Group had organized a letter writing campaign asking that Torti step aside.
And there was a political element to the issue as well. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Scudder Parker says Governor Douglas showed a lack of judgment and leadership in allowing Torti to stay in state service.
V-PIRG Director Paul Burns says Torti has made the right decision.
(Burns) “I think it’s unfortunate that the administration allowed it to come about in the first place and that they have reacted so slowly to it. But ultimately this is certainly the right move for the agency, the environment and for all the staff there as well.”
(Dillon) Chris Kilian, the Vermont director of the Conservation Law Foundation, says Torti should step aside immediately because the chamber has numerous issues before the agency.
(Kilian) “There was a problem and there is a problem and it would be much better for the people of the state if as he makes a decision to move on to represent the biggest development organization in the state of Vermont, he should just recognize that that creates a real conflict of interest and that it was a bad idea for him to think he could stay on for any period of time.”
(Dillon) As a gubernatorial appointee, Torti is covered by a code of ethics spelled out in an executive order that Governor Douglas signed three years ago.
The code prohibits him from lobbying the legislature or any public body for one year on issues that he was involved in as agency secretary.
Torti says he’ll follow the ethics code.
(Torti) “Our positions are more political positions from the chamber’s perspective, more philosophical, and we have folks who are in Montpelier doing that work. So I don’t see that being a problem.”
(Dillon) Torti says he had originally planned to go to work for the chamber on November 1st. He says he’ll now start sooner, but the exact date hasn’t been determined.
He’ll step aside as agency secretary on July 31st. But he’ll remain with the agency until September 1st to work on an ongoing reorganization plan.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.