Here’s a story ripped, as they say, from the headlines.
It’s about a business venture with an ambitious plan to bring new possibilities to an underserved area of Vermont, with large quantities of money obtained through a federal program.
The venture’s head is a prominent, well-connected Vermont businessman. At one point, he hired a top Shumlin administration official to fill a high-profile executive position. The hire raised some concerns about Montpelier’s “revolving door” between public and private sectors. (The hiree was a woman, and is no longer with the company.)
The venture poured lots of outside money into its project. Eventually, people started noticing that the results were far short of what was promised. Inconvenient questions were raised. But through it all, the head of the venture insisted that nothing was wrong. Indeed, he publicly criticized VTDigger for “unfair” reporting.
Okay, I must be talking about Bill Stenger and Jay Peak, right?
Vermont’s congressional delegation is seeking information from the federal government on the $116 million broadband project that VTel Wireless started in 2010.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., have signed a letter asking whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service has been holding VTel accountable.
The letter was sent on April 6, but has just now been reported by VTDigger. The three Great Men say that VTel has spent $117 million in federal grants and loans for a wireless internet service that has a mere 1,000 subscribers and fails to provide anything like universal coverage in the area it is supposed to serve.
VTel chief Michel Guité says the money has been invested in infrastructure, but that getting customers is “a long, slow process because it’s probably providing service to 10 or 15 people per town.”
That quote is taken from a previous VTDigger story which made Guité so upset that he refused to comment for the latest story, and called VTDigger an unfair news organization.
Now, clearly the VTel story isn’t in the same league as Jay Peak. Nobody’s talking criminal charges, just raising questions about how the federal money was spent. Our Congressional delegation is calling for nothing more than “adequate oversight” and ensuring successful completion of the project.
But I thought the parallels were striking. And perhaps Governor Shumlin’s words of wisdom on Jay Peak could be applied to VTel as well.
“…you know, at the heart of it, there’s a certain amount of trust in the partnerships that we have with the private sector in government.”
Yeah, c’mon, Pat, Bernie, and Peter. Lighten up. Sit back, relax, let it all go. Trust in the partnership.
Postscript. For those who need a reminder, the former administration official hired by Stenger was Shumlin chief of staff Alex Maclean. VTel’s hire was Karen Marshall, who had been the state telecommunications chief. She is now, by the way, a political consultant on the payroll of the Bruce Lisman campaign.