Jim Condos: Whistleblowers, Sunshine Laws and the Ship of State

By Kevin Joseph Ryan

As True North Reports went to press this past Thursday, we were not able to get in direct contact with Secretary of State Jim Condos for his reaction to the videotape released by James O’Keefe, showing the potential for voter fraud in Vermont, which has no voter ID requirement. Mr. Condos made himself available the following day in what turned out to be a lengthy interview covering not only O’Keefe, but a wide range of topics. Today, we present an overview of that discussion.

Jim Condos should come as no stranger to anyone within the Vermont political scene, having served in the Vermont Senate from 2000 to 2008, then beginning his first term as Secretary of State in 2011. True North Reports was certainly no stranger to Mr. Condos as the interview began, and it appeared this caused the Secretary some pause at first. “I’m not so sure [TNR editor] Rob Roper likes me.” He said with a hearty chuckle. I replied, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I’m not my editor, so let’s talk about this fellow James O’Keefe.” With that, we were off to the races.

“Well, the issue with O’Keefe is that these types of videos create a sense of heightened concern.” Said Condos. Just to recap, this refers to a right-wing reporter who has developed a reputation the past few years for creating controversy with hidden camera videos which show corruption or absurdity with government policies, but who has a sensationalistic nature. The Secretary noted that after viewing the tape and its contents, widely available on YouTube, he felt that it appeared that O’Keefe had violated State law by presenting himself to voting officials under a false name, despite admitting he did so to prove that it was possible to obtain a ballot without ID. “Do you think it would be alright if a reporter were to speed down the highway to do a story on whether the police would pull them over…or do you think the police would then ticket that reporter like anyone else?” Condos asked. I countered by saying the nature of such an investigation might make all the difference, and did he, Condos, want to stop reporters from conducting stings? Condos noted such reporting may open doors he would prefer to see stay closed.

The basis for requesting an investigation by the Office of the Attorney General, according to Condos, was simply to get a formal review of the contents of the tape. “I saw that O’Keefe probably violated the law, so I sent [the complaint] over.” He said that the move was fairly routine, and he would have done the same had a left-wing group done something similar.

These types of complaints are not uncommon within the political arena and do not necessarily raise alarms, such as the Vermont Democratic Party’s recent censure directed towards Campaign for Vermont. According to that complaint to Sorrell’s office, the organization Campaign for Vermont had violated state campaign finance law by running ads which were critical to policies of Governor Peter Shumlin without being a political action committee. The Attorney General’s office determined there was no violation, and the issue was put to bed. The issue over the O’Keefe video could be settled the same way, said Condos. However, a similar situation involving the Republican Governor’s Association was decided the other way, and one does take pause as to whether such investigations themselves creating a chilling effect in the arena of public discourse, regardless of whether that discourse is of a somber nature, or like James O’Keefe, presented with a more sarcastic tone.

Condos went on to say that he really doesn’t believe that voter fraud is a large issue within the State, and hears calls for revision of state laws to require identification to vote as a move by conservatives to suppress the vote among vulnerable populations and among voters who tend to vote Democrat. I asked if that observation was either-or, or did he feel the two groups, which included minorities, seniors and the disabled, were the same. “Well, those groups do tend to vote left-wing,” he added.

What is clear is that Condos does feel that the right to vote holds a special place in the pantheon of constitutional rights. “Getting on a plane, driving, drinking, these are privileges the government gives you, voting is a fundamental right.” The Secretary noted. “We may eventually need to take this [Voter ID question] to the Supreme Court.”

Condos also favors cleaning the local and state voter lists regularly. He observed that the local voting authorities send out “Challenge Letters,” asking voters to verify current addresses and has the voter database linked to the Department of Motor Vehicles database linked up to communicate with each other. Condos said the state is doing the best they can to preserve the sanctity of elections. “We’ve been having that conversation since the Helping America Vote Act in 2002,” referring to a Bush era law which added Federal requirements to facilitate voting. Condos would be open to constructive changes to Vermont elections law, but he says it’s out of his hands. “…You’re asking me, not the Legislature…” He said.

Although Condos and this writer covered a good many topics during the hour long interview, many of them were of an introductory nature and outside the scope of detailed review, such as Condos’ history here in Vermont, having graduated from Burlington High School, followed by UVM in 1974, or his commitment to an open government policy. There remain questions about Condos actual commitment to such policies, such as raised by Jason Gibbs, Condos’ Republican opponent during the 2010 election cycle. Gibbs noted, “Out of 123 meetings…(the South Burlington City Council) met in executive session 61 times.” Condos served as the Chairman of the Council. “…There is no public record of whether or not the difficult questions were asked.” added Gibbs, referring to a serious employee pension shortfall in South Burlington under Condos’ tenure.

Condos did point out that he is encouraging the Vermont Legislature to clarify the open meetings law in Vermont, currently under consideration as of this writing. “They need to clean up the open meeting law.” Pointed out The Secretary. “I review minutes where a local select board went into executive session, and they list the reason for doing so is to discuss employee reviews. It’s got to be better than that.” Condos referring to a procedure where a governmental body is permitted to meet without public scrutiny. A review of the bill as it was passed by the Vermont Senate recently shows that the new open meeting law would clarify a few procedures in public access to government, but doesn’t really add much that is new.

Condos appears to be sincere in his efforts to streamline and clarify state governmental procedures, and having taken on a role as Chair of Senate Government Operations Committee during his tenure in the State Senate, the nuance of those procedures seem important to him. He has expanded the internet presence of the Secretary of State’s Office by creating an open archive of particular historical documents, mostly recently showcasing the 1957 and 1973 legislative debates on open meetings. He seems to be a reasonable man who enjoys his work, yet with a suspicion for the motives of political conservatives. Condos, in the final analysis, presents as a man sincere in his work, wanting the best for Vermont, but with a sense that he requires less scrutiny than perhaps his political opponents do.