As its final months drag onward, the Shumlin administration is remaining true to one of its core principles: Shoot the messenger. We have two prime examples of this time-tested strategery today: a top state official slams a respected media outlet, a move that has backfired big-time in the past; and the administration puts a big fat price tag on transparency.
First, Lawrence Miller, Vermont Health Connect czar, has beef with VTDigger.
[Miller] testified Wednesday in the House and challenged the veracity of a VTDigger story that said the state has been unhappy with its current Vermont Health Connect contractor and is negotiating with another company.
… [Miller said] that any frustration he expressed in emails was a normal part of negotiations.
Digger’s earlier story had quoted emails from a state official expressing dissatisfaction with VHC contractor Optum. Which would be noteworthy, since Optum was supposedly the savior of Vermont Health Connect. Miller pooh-poohed the story’s assertion, saying that a certain amount of “friction” is a normal part of the process.
Maybe that’s true, but here’s the problem. This is the same “Lawrence Miller” who was in charge of the Agency for Commerce and Community Development when it was happily attempting to both promote and regulate the ill-fated EB-5 program. He headed ACCD from 2011 to 2014, when he was tasked with cleaning up the Vermont Health Connect mess.
In other words, Miller has been hip-deep in two of the Shumlin administration’s signature disasters. Is it possible he negotiated Shumlin’s original land deal with jerry Dodge?
Miller and his colleagues just spent three solid years raking VTDigger over the coals for its allegedly biased reporting on Bill Stenger and Ariel Quiros. Turned out, Digger vastly understated the extent of the scandal because it could only document so much.
Miller’s got nerve going after Digger again now. Because frankly, he doesn’t have a whole lot of credibility. Nor does the entire administration.
Which brings us to issue number two. Last Friday, the Shumlin administration released what it called “a representative sample” of emails sent and received by five former staffers, including Alex MacLean, who left the administration to take a job with Stenger and Quiros. The administration had sought to delete the emails in what it said was a routine move — but which drew opposition from the IT department and Secretary of State.
And now, the administration is asking various media outlets to withdraw their public-records requests for the remaining emails — tens of thousands of them — because it would take up so much staff time to review them for public release. Otherwise, it says, it will charge $20,000 to fulfill the requests.
It’s quite possible that the emails are perfectly routine and obsolete. But once again, the administration has squanered its credibility. Its deletion request came roughly a week before the EB-5 scandal broke, and MacLean’s presence on the list naturally raises a red flag or two.
More generally, the administration’s frequent stonewalling, media bashing, and statements that later prove to be inoperative (nothing-burger, anyone?) have created an atmosphere of mistrust — going both ways, I’m sure. They, more than anyone else, have made this bed, and now they’re complaining that the sheets chafe.
They’re not getting much sympathy from the Fourth Estate.
From my perspective, Vermont’s political media is not especially cynical or untrusting. Indeed, I sometimes find them a bit too credulous for my taste. If they’ve soured on the administration’s reassurances, it’s not because they are inherently nasty or unfair. It’s because the administration has abused the relationship too often in the past.