Here’s me doing something I never thought I’d do: recommending a story on the right-wing website Vermont Watchdog that I believe is an actual scoop of some importance.
Vermont Watchdog, for those just joining us, is the Montpelier outpost of a conservative journalistic enterprise that gets its money from the Usual Suspects, i.e. the Kochs et al. The site’s usual content is vastly overblown at best, completely off the mark at worst. But this time, VTW’s Bruce Parker got hold of something.
Business development groups in Vermont are demanding to know how a $100,000 appropriation for fostering business with Quebec was awarded exclusively to Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, according to emails obtained by Vermont Watchdog.
The appropriation in question was included in S.138, an economic development bill that passed the Legislature this year. The bill’s language does not mention LCRCC; it simply says the $100,000 will go to the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development “to implement a targeted marketing and business expansion initiative for Quebec-based businesses…”
One could reasonably infer that once the bill was signed into law, ACCD would fashion a means of using the money for the intended purpose. But apparently there was a backdoor deal to simply hand the 100 G’s over to the LCRCC, whose Executive Director, Tom Torti, held high positions in the Dean and Douglas administrations, and was recently referred to by Seven Days’ Paul Heintz as one of “the state’s traditional power brokers,” whose counsel, sez Heintz, would be invaluable to potential candidates for governor.
It didn’t take long after the legislature adjourned for the full deal to be proudly revealed. Four days, in fact.
At a May 20 news conference in Burlington, Gov. Peter Shumlin, House Speaker Shap Smith and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger awarded $100,000 to the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce. …
During the news conference, LCRCC President Tom Torti told press the chamber’s new partnership with the Shumlin administration had “been in the works for a few weeks.”
I’ll just highlight the presence of potential gubernatorial candidate Shap Smith, one of those presumably seeking counsel from Torti and his fellow power brokers.
That presser caused some immediate backlash from regional development groups that were left out of the loop. Here’s where the emails “obtained by Vermont Watchdog” come in. And I know Parker isn’t making it up because he posted the emails online.
The day after the May 20 presser, Tim Smith of the Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation emailed ACCD Secretary Pat Moulton, saying he was “quite upset/disappointed” that he learned of the LCRCC windfall after the fact, and that his organization and two others in northwestern Vermont were not “invited to the table in an effort to work together or share in funding.”
His email was sent at 2:19 p.m. At 3:41, Moulton sent a reply, cc’d to a Rolodex’s worth of public and private sector economic-development types, including Tom Torti, that apologized to Smith for “the lack of notification,” and characterized the $100,000 as funding “a coordinated effort that builds on existing work being done by all.”
And eleven minutes later, she sent an email to Torti saying, “I am going to need your help calming the waters here!”
This was one of a flurry of emails between Moulton and Torti in the ensuing 18 hours. Here’s a key exchange.
At one point, Moulton wrote Torti that the three business groups “want access to funding and I can’t say no.” Torti’s one-line response:
The 100K is for the LCRCC. There is other money for additional efforts
He later added, “The fact that… they didn’t ask for funding is not my problem or yours.”
Not quite “they can kiss my ass,” but pretty close. The groups didn’t ask for funding, of course, because they didn’t know any of this stuff was happening until it was too late!
Parker hasn’t been able to uncover the maneuverings that led to this $100,000 set-aside for LCRCC. That’s because, as Parker reports, Governor Shumlin has “asserted executive privilege” regarding emails between Shumlin staffers, Moulton, and Torti.
There may be nothing much to this, aside from some bruised feelings that will quickly be relieved through that universal emollient, cash money. And by state budget standards, $100,000 isn’t an awful lot. But it’s the kind of thing that makes people believe that Vermont politics is an insider’s game full of deals benefiting the well-connected.
And yes, it’s the kind of thing that makes me believe that Vermont needs an independent ethics commission.
I would welcome any on-the-record response to this from any of the players involved. They know how to reach me. If I don’t hear anything, I’ll assume that Bruce Parker got it right.