Torti under scrutiny by environmentalists

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(Host) An environmental group wants to know whether Natural Resources Secretary Tom Torti has followed the governor’s code of ethics covering potential conflicts of interest.

Torti says the environmentalists are waging a smear campaign. And Governor Jim Douglas says he’s confident Torti has followed the highest standards of ethical conduct.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Conservation Law Foundation has asked Torti to disclose under the public records law how he avoided conflicts with his new job at the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce

The code says that a gubernatorial appointee shall not “take any official action that materially advances the interest of any entity with which the appointee is actively seeking employment.”

That means Torti had to avoid doing anything to benefit the Chamber, while he was talking to them about a job.

Chris Kilian is Vermont director of the Conservation Law Foundation.

(Kilian) “And I think it’s fair for the people of the state to know how long that process was going on, and what measures were taken to make sure that Secretary Torti wasn’t taking positions and actions that forwarded the interests of those private entities while he was seeking employment with them.”

(Dillon) Torti says he began talking to the chamber in late April about working s its president, but says he did not tilt any decisions in its favor. He says the CLF criticism borders on character assassination.

(Torti) “I don’t think it happened and if they want to point to an example, I’d be happy to look at it and respond to it. But that’s the tactic of throwing a bunch of smear up there and seeing where the stink of that smear falls. And I’m supposed to respond to that. It’s almost like trying to prove a negative.”

(Dillon) Environmentalists have pointed out that Torti is a strong supporter of the Circumferential Highway in Chittenden County, a project that the chamber also supports. The Circ is now undergoing environmental review. Torti says he wants to see the road built – but only if it complies with environmental standards.

He says he’s complied with the governor’s ethics code and that he’s avoided conflicts on issues involving the chamber and its members. And he says what he did is not that unusual at top levels of state government.

(Torti) “People change jobs. And people have a right to apply for jobs. That doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention to their job, because chances are they’re not going to get the job they apply for. That happens. So does that mean that every time you apply for a job, you have to step down and recuse yourself? I mean, that’s just craziness.”

(Dillon) Governor Jim Douglas says that Torti is a 27-year veteran of state government with high ethical standards.

(Douglas) “Vermont is a small state where people go in and out of government all the time and questions haven’t been raised about other transitions to the extent that questions seem to be asked now. I can’t explain that. But I think Vermonters know that those who serve the public do so in the public interest.”

(Dillon) Kilian says the public needs proof that Torti has indeed walled himself off from chamber business. That’s why, he says, he filed the access to public records request.

But a lawyer for the Agency of Natural Resources says the only relevant document he could find is a 1999 agency policy on conflicts of interest.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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