Financial disclosures at center of gubernatorial campaign controversy

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(Host) Should the spouses of statewide candidates be required to fully disclose their financial holdings?

That question has been raised in this year’s gubernatorial campaign because the candidates have taken very different approaches on the issue.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel takes a closer look.

(Kinzel) This is not a new issue for Vermont politics. It was raised in the past two gubernatorial campaigns when several candidates didn’t initially release their joint tax returns or disclose the full financial assets of their spouses.  After a few weeks, the information was released.

While most candidates do disclose their family financial information, there’s no state election law that requires it.

This year, Democratic candidate Gaye Symington has released her personal financial information, but not that of her husband Chuck Lacy – a former president of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

Republican incumbent Governor Jim Douglas has released his family’s tax forms and assets and he thinks Symington should do the same thing.

(Douglas) “It’s what’s been done for more than a quarter century. Vermonters need to insist that Speaker Symington conform to that level of openness, transparency and accountability."

(Kinzel) Independent candidate Anthony Pollina released his joint tax return this week. He says he’d rather be talking about energy policies but:

(Pollina) “I think it’s a legitimate question when you’re running for statewide office. Part of what you’re trying to do, I would hope, is to build trust between yourself and the voters."

(Kinzel) Symington is holding firm. She says she’s the candidate – not her husband.

(Symington) “I have honored the goal of transparency in government by releasing my financial information for the last 4 years, along with any joint assets that I own. I am the candidate. As I travel around the state, this issue rarely comes up. What people are asking me about is fuel prices. They’re looking for some creativity in creating good jobs. They’re looking for leadership in the governor’s office. And that’s where I’m focusing my efforts in my campaign."

(Kinzel) Because Symington and her husband actually filed a joint tax return, her campaign took the unusual step of creating a pro forma individual income tax return to disclose only her financial information.  She says it was the right thing to do:

(Symington) “I think that by asking our accountant to prepare that kind of pro forma, it allows for a level of assurance that these can be traced back to our tax returns and that it focuses on the earnings and joint assets that relate to my finances, since I’m the candidate."

(Kinzel) Does the complete disclosure of family income and assets really matter?  Middlebury College political science professor Eric Davis says the answer is yes. He thinks it’s critical for candidates to avoid the perception of having any financial conflicts of interest:

(Davis) “Someone who is running for governor or any other statewide office, for example, needs to be very, very careful that they don’t have holdings in businesses whose financial fortunes would be affected by transactions that they have with the state of Vermont."

(Kinzel) And Davis says Symington’s position is weakened by the fact that the Symington/Lacy household did file a joint tax return:

(Davis) “It’s hard to make the argument that the finances are sufficiently separate and distinct that only one party can make a financial disclosure."

(Kinzel) Davis agrees with Symington that voters are probably much more interested in policy differences among the candidates. But he says her failure to fully disclose her finances takes attention away from the more important issues facing the state.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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