Daily Archives: September 22, 2014

Meet the new bird, not the same as the old bird

Oh, goodie.

[Vermont’s state bird, the] hermit thrush is just one of half of Vermont’s more than 200 nesting bird species threatened by rising temperatures that are reducing the breeding range of flyers that prefer cooler climates, according to a new National Audubon Society study.

“Every year migrating birds tell us that the seasons are changing,” says Jim Shallow, Audubon Vermont’s conservation and policy director.

… “The potential is there for about 50 percent of our birds in Vermont to see big shifts in their ranges,” Shallow says.

If we’re taking nominees for a replacement State Bird, how ’bout the flamingo?

Seriously, though. One of the arguments from the anti-renewables crowd is that we need to preserve Vermont as it is. Only problem is, that Vermont is under assault from climate change. If you think a few ridgeline wind farms will fundamentally change the character of Vermont, just wait till global warming starts kicking our ecological ass. If you don’t want to see any turbines in your viewing space, just wait till we lose all the maple trees and snow cover.

And then there’s the follow-on argument: We can’t affect the course of climate change because of China or tar sands or Al Gore’s travel schedule or NASCAR or Shumlin’s SUV, so why should we even try?

To which I say: (1) we have a moral obligation to do our best, (2) if we all think that way we’ll never get anything done, and (3) as with health care, Vermont can serve as a model for others to follow.

If we’re ever going to get a handle on carbon emissions, it’ll be through creating a fundamentally different system for energy generation and distribution — a smaller-scale, more broadly distributed system where the environmental footprint is much lighter because it’s spread evenly. That’ll require, among other things, a goodly helping of wind, solar, and hydro power — the resources Vermont can tap in abundance.

It might not be enough to save the hermit thrush, but it might help prevent its replacement by a bright pink bird that likes to stand on one foot.

Beware the fast-talking gentlemen bearing snake oil

Must be fall. Traditional time for fairs and festivals around our state. And one of the traditional accompaniments to these events is the patent-medicine man, selling his Secret Natural Herbal Remedies, good for whatever ailments may befall Man, Woman, Child, Horse, and Dog.

And hightailing it to the next town before too many locals get sick from the dubious contents of those thick, opaque bottles.

Well, here come our snake-oil salesmen of politics, hawking their Foolproof Solutions To Our School Funding Ills. Just a tablespoon of my tincture, they cry, and all your problems are solved.

ambition-pillsOn the back of one horse-drawn cart we find a tall slender redhead brandishing a bottle of Olde Mahatma’s Secret Curative, a formula crafted by the Wise Men of the Far East (a.k.a. Pomfret), a stern purgative guaranteed to cleanse the system of blockages, growths, tumors and humors of all sorts, paving the way for a fresh start in a bright new tomorrow.

Behind all the label’s mumbo-jumbo, Olde Mahatma’s Curative is a simple solution with only one active ingredient: a two-year freeze on property taxes. This seemingly harsh treatment pays no heed to complications or practicalities; it just reams out the entire waterworks.

Over here, across the town square, is a dark-haired figure of serious mien offering Doc Feliciano’s Ache-Be-Gone, an elixir which, taken internally or applied externally*, is strong enough to banish every trace of pain from any cause, including lumbago, neuralgia, ague, impetigo, quinsy, and The Screws. Doc F has used all his extensive scientific training to fashion a singular combination of analgesics, potions, and elixirs, including some that have been foolishly prohibited by unimaginative authorities.

*You choose the method and dosage, for each man is the best judge of his own medicinal needs. 

Doc Feliciano promises to banish all pain and discomfort from the unrelenting pressure of property taxes through the indubitable mechanisms of the Free Market. His solution for a public school system with too few students and rising costs? A whole lot more schools! Free Choice For All! Which will, somehow, magically, bring down the cost of the system.

My friends, you would be wise to eschew the easy blandishments of the political snake-oil salesman. Complicated problems require time and care, and nuanced approaches by learned practitioners. You will not find the answers to your educational troubles at the bottom of a murky brown bottle! Keep your hard-earned money in your pocket, and let the peddlers be on their way.

Janssen Willhoit: a correction and amplification

In my previous post, I reported the criminal past of Janssen Willhoit, Republican candidate for the legislature in St. Johnsbury. He served time in a Kentucky prison for running an investment scam, and failing to make restitution to his victims.

In my post, I wrote the following:

… he has not revealed his troubles; his campaign bio carefully omits any hint of his criminal offense and incarceration, even as it trumpets his advocacy for inmates’ rights.

My conclusion: His offense doesn’t disqualify him from public service, but the voters deserve to know and have the opportunity to make their own judgments. It appears to me that the candidate could tell a powerful and believable story of redemption. But he needs to explain why he deserves the public’s trust.

I’ve been informed by a keen observer in St. J that this is not true: he has been openly speaking of his experiences. From the May 14 Caledonian-Record:

… His path to St. Johnsbury includes being a financial broker, an independent investment advisor, going to prison, and being raped in prison. Being raped earned him time in the “hole” which meant he missed his parole hearing. During his time in prison Janssen committed himself to helping people in need. He started by helping prisoners learn to read, while he was still in prison, and being sent back to the hole for starting a “reading gang.”

Janssen eventually received an executive pardon from the Kentucky governor, and then became instrumental in getting many changes to the Kentucky prison system — including making same-sex rapes a crime. There is a connection between Kentucky and Vermont — Vermont houses inmates in Kentucky and Janssen learned of Vermont’s work with prisoner rights.

Unfortunately for me and for the truth, the Caledonian-Record’s content is behind a paywall, and is not referenced on Internet search engines.

In my searches about Willhoit, I could find no hint that he had revealed his past. His website contains no clue of it. I tried to be thorough, I tried to be factual, and I tried to be fair.

And I failed. For that, I apologize to Mr. Willhoit.

At the end of my post, I wrote the following:

… the people of St. Johnsbury should know about it, and he should fully explain the circumstances of his offense, whether he has repaid his victims, and if not, why not. After that, the voters can make an informed choice.

In fact, he had already done that. He has been forthcoming about his past, and the voters can make an informed choice.

Which leaves me with one unanswered question: did the person who gave me the tip about Willhoit know that he’d been honest about his past? If not, then no harm, no foul. If so, then I’ve been the victim of a dirty political trick. In the future, I’ll try to be more careful about such things.

How pertinent is a candidate’s past? A case study

Update: Some of what I write in this post is not true. The candidate has, in fact, spoken publicly about his past. Please see the following correction for the full story and my apology. 

The other day I got a tip. It was about a candidate for the legislature who had  supposedly been charged in another state with running an investment scam, pled guilty to a reduced charge, and served time in prison. Since his release, he has apparently kept his nose clean. Indeed, he became something of an inmates’ rights activist.

He later moved to Vermont, where he has continued on the straight and narrow. He’s now running for State House. He hasn’t revealed his criminal past, nor has anyone reported it, although it can be found through a simple Google search.

The story is more complicated than the original tip would suggest. And I pondered whether I should let it alone. After all, he seems to have reformed himself, and everyone deserves a second chance.

In the end, after much thought, I decided to write this post. The deciding factors: His offense was a serious one — he was accused of bilking investors of as much as $150,000. This happened relatively recently, roughly ten years ago. He was under court order to repay his victims, and as far as I can tell he has failed to do so. And he has not revealed his troubles; his campaign bio carefully omits any hint of his criminal offense and incarceration, even as it trumpets his advocacy for inmates’ rights.

My conclusion: His offense doesn’t disqualify him from public service, but the voters deserve to know and have the opportunity to make their own judgments. It appears to me that the candidate could tell a powerful and believable story of redemption. But he needs to explain why he deserves the public’s trust.

The candidate in question is Janssen Willhoit, Republican hopeful for the State House in St. Johnsbury. His story:

In June 2004, Willhoit was arrested on charges of “theft by deception.” His victims included the mayor of Stanford, Kentucky. The details:

The investment scam was first reported by Stanford Mayor Eddie Carter, said [Stanford police detective Rick] Edwards. Carter had reportedly invested more than $50,000 of his personal money with Willhoit’s false company, Net City. Net City, which promised investors high interest rates, was supposedly a subsidiary of National City Bank. But when Carter called to check on his account, he was told the number was a phony.

… False investment paperwork had lulled the victims into trusting Net City by indicating the company was a affiliated with Met Life Insurance companies and of legitimate financial protection companies, Securities Investor Protection Corp. and NASD. Officials from the bank and Met Life confirmed that Net City was never an associate during that time, police report.

… Investors’ cash is thought to have been used to support Willhoit’s comfortable lifestyle before his arrest.

In August, Mayor Carter filed a civil suit against Willhoit. He quickly won, and was awarded $55,000 in restitution and damages.

In November 2004, Willhoit agreed to a plea deal that would have let him avoid prison if he repaid his victims. The first step in that process was to post a $10,000 bond, followed by monthly payments of $600.

But in December, he was back in court:

Janssen Willhoit, 25, who swindled approximately $95,000 from three Stanford residents through a phony company, was sentenced to 10 years in prison with the possibility of shock probation.

… Willhoit faced Circuit Judge Robert Gillum without having paid the promised money. Both the judge and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Daryl Day expressed their frustration with the development.

“He doesn’t have the $10,000,” said [defense attorney Mitchell] Berryman. “It leaves us in a quandary.”

“It doesn’t leave me in a quandary,” Gillum said. “I guess he’s going to serve some time then. He’s obviously not going to meet the conditions of probation… He lied to the court.”

In February 2005 Willhoit was back before Judge Gillum to request “shock probation,” which is sometimes granted inmates — usually first-time offenders —  after they’ve been in prison for a short time. The idea is that being behind bars might “shock” a person into changing his ways. But the judge wasn’t buying it. 

Lincoln Circuit Judge Robert Gillum, who handed down Willhoit’s sentence last year, again had stern words for the swindler. Gillum said Willhoit lied to the court in the past by promising to, but not posting, a $10,000 bail to be used as restitution money. Gillum said Willhoit was a flight risk, despite his claims otherwise, and denied the motion.

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 10.01.59 PMWillhoit went back to prison. I haven’t been able to determine exactly when he was released. He was definitely out no later than 2009; in February 2010 he testified before a state legislative committee in favor of a bill to allow former inmates to regain their voting rights. He described himself as a former inmate. (Accompanying image is from the video of his testimony.)

Later that year he moved to Vermont and began studies at Vermont Law School. After graduating, he moved to St. Johnsbury and joined the law firm of Willey & Power.

Earlier this year, Willhoit launched a campaign for State House. In the August primary, he came in second in a three-way race for two Republican nominations, advancing him to the November election.

Willhoit’s campaign bio barely mentions his life before 2010. It does boast of his volunteer efforts after Tropical Storm Irene, his work as a public defender in the Northeast Kingdom, his active membership in a local church, and his work mentoring prisoners.

It also proclaims his commitment “to serving the least among us” without ever mentioning that he used to be one of the least among us.

As I said earlier, I don’t believe that Willhoit’s criminal past or his apparent failure to make restitution should disqualify him from the Legislature. (Insert snide comment about the probity of State House denizens here.) But the people of St. Johnsbury should know about it, and he should fully explain the circumstances of his offense, whether he has repaid his victims, and if not, why not. After that, the voters can make an informed choice.