Monthly Archives: September 2019

The Spurious Leahy Equivalency

Hey folks, pesky fly buzzing about. Time to get out the ol’ elephant gun.

Last week, Vermont’s own conservative writer, lobbyist and Trump apologist Guy Page took to the interwebs to downplay the significance of Our Felonious President’s dealings with Ukraine by making a completely baseless comparison to the actions of St. Patrick Leahy.

As Page would have it, while Trump exerted pressure on Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s dealings in that country*, Leahy also engaged in pressure tactics against that selfsame nation. In May 2018, Leahy and two fellow Senate Democrats sent a letter to the then-senior prosecutor of Ukraine expressing “great concern” that the prosecutor was impeding the Robert Mueller investigation, and urging him to cooperate. The Senators noted that they had been “strong advocates for a robust and close relationship with Ukraine.” Without saying so, they implied that their advocacy could be subject to change.

*Nice of Page to acknowledge Trump’s pressure tactics. Although he characterizes it as “Trump’s pursuit of justice,” ahem.

Aha! See? A classic case of “both sides do it.”

Ehh, not so fast, buddy boy. Trump and Leahy both communicated justice-related concerns with Ukrainian officials, to be sure. But that’s where the similarities end.

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Arise, Teen Selfie Stars

Climate activist and current darling of the free world Greta Thunberg has had enough of your adulation.

Everywhere I have been the situation is more or less same. The people in power, their beautiful words are the same. The number of politicians and celebrities who want to take selfies with us are the same. The empty promises are the same. The lies are the same, and the inaction is the same. Nowhere have I found anyone in power who dares to tell it like it is, because no matter where you are, even that burden they leave to us, us teenagers, us children.

She said that last Friday, at a climate strike rally in New York City. And she’s dead right. Thunberg’s critics have been thoroughly condescending about this pigtailed teenager telling us how to run the world — and her supporters have offered a more subtle form of condescension. There’s an undercurrent of “how cute” and “isn’t it amazing that this teenager is so bright, so committed?” not unlike when Joe Biden called Barack Obama clean and articulate, as if that’s surprising to see in a black man. We applaud Thunberg, we get a selfie, maybe we even give her the Nobel Peace Prize, and we feel like we’ve made a statement on the world’s climate crisis.

When, in fact, we’ve done jack shit. Thunberg made this even more explicit in her Sunday address at the United Nations:

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you come to us young people for hope. How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

It may be time for Vermont’s own teen selfie stars to adopt the same attitude.

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VT Dems tiptoe around embezzlement case

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. On Saturday, the Vermont Democratic Party’s state committee held its first meeting since the full extent of the Brandon Batham embezzlement came to light. But there seemed little taste for confrontation or tough questions. The majority seemed content with party leadership’s promises to tighten up financial and management controls and generally lock the barn door after they’d lost a horse.

Recapping the basics: In July, party officials discovered that Batham had paid himself nearly $3,000 for apparently nonexistent expenses and mileage. Batham resigned on the spot. A couple weeks later, party leaders discovered another $15,500 in extra paychecks Batham apparently cut to himself. The matter was referred to the Montpelier Police Department for investigation. The incident also raised questions about financial and managerial oversight, or the lack thereof.

At Saturday’s meeting, party chair Terje Anderson gave a thorough, convincing case that Things Would Be Different From Now On. An outside firm, Political CFOs, has been hired to do all the VDP’s accounting and financial reporting. (The firm has submitted the VDP’s overdue August financial report to the Federal Elections Commission and filed the September report on time.) At least two people must approve every check issued from party funds. Anderson has been communicating with donors and party officials, and offered to meet with any activist, county committee or donor in an effort to “regain trust.”

(Keeping the books had been an internal staff function, and the quality of the work depended on the person responsible. Former staffer and financial whiz Selene Hofer-Shall “ran a very tight ship,” said Anderson. “After she left, there were a lot of internal struggles to keep it on track.”)

One more big thing: Anderson said he’d pored over every expense for the past two and a half years, and found about $850 in transactions with insufficient documentation. Whether that’s a matter of theft or mere sloppiness, Anderson’s review seems to rule out additional large-scale embezzlements. (He did admit, however, that there was no way to retroactively vet requests for mileage reimbursements.)

Anderson also took full responsibility for the matter. “I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish I’d caught it sooner,” he told the state committee.

In the process of being as transparent as possible, Anderson revealed a couple of disturbing facts about party administration.

First, Anderson said, Batham was able to cut himself checks without oversight or review because, somehow, Batham had become “the only person with access to our bank information.”

Yeah, that’s kind of a setup for embezzlement.

Second, Anderson acknowledged that the VDP’s staff hiring process was… well… not a process at all. “We have a history in this party of hiring people with no process,” he said. “No interview, no checking of references.”

Yeah, that’s kind of a setup for hiring embezzlers. Anderson promised that things had changed.

This level of mismanagement should be embarrassing at least — and perhaps disqualifying — for those who exercised authority during this time. But most state committee members were in a forgiving mood. Many praised the hard work of party officials and applauded the new reforms. A couple of members blamed the media for publicizing the case — which, c’mon, folks. If embezzlement strikes a prominent Vermont organization, then reporters are gonna report.

Honestly, if the party was this badly managed and organized, Democrats ought to be thanking the media for shining some light in the dark corners instead of thanking leadership for having the decency to clean up its own messes.

Nothing has changed for Bernie, and Bernie has changed nothing

There’s been a tsunami of bad news this month for The World’s Oldest Junior Senator, Bernie Sanders. The political media reported on shakeups at the top of his presidential campaigns in New Hampshire and Iowa, which is never a good sign. The Working Families Party, which heartily endorsed Sanders in 2016, gave its nod to Sen. Elizabeth Warren instead. He was bedeviled by a throat thing which limited his effectiveness in the most recent debate and caused him to cancel appearances in the early primary state of South Carolina.

And the Sanders campaign’s response to all of this: Crack down on leaks and blame the media.

Also not a good sign. Don’t shoot the messenger, folks.

Then there’s the biggest and most inconvenient truth for Sanders: He isn’t making any headway in the polls. If anything, he has slipped back a bit from his uncontested second place standing at the beginning of the year. Warren, the other contender for the left/progressive vote, is the only candidate who’s climbed significantly. In most polls she’s taken second place away from Sanders, although he’s still a close third — often within a poll’s margin of error.

In truth, all this bad publicity doesn’t matter very much. The political media like to pile on when there seems to be a trend forming.

The worst news for Team Bernie is that, after all these months and all that organizing and speechifying and social media activity and Ben Cohen ice cream socials and the million-plus unique donors, the Sanders campaign is stuck in the same position it’s been in since day one.

Back in January, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver assessed all the Democratic candidates’ prospects. His take on Vermont’s hometown hero: “Sanders looks like a candidate with a high floor and a low ceiling.” By which he meant that Sanders had a strong and solid base of support, but relatively little opportunity for growth.

His floor hasn’t fallen, but his ceiling has yet to rise.

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Watchdog group: Vermont’s ethics commission is worthless

According to a new report from the nonprofit Coalition for Integrity, Vermont is one of the worst states in the nation for ethics enforcement in government.

The C4I’s report (first reported in Vermont by VTDigger) compares the ethics processes of all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. Vermont is in a three-way tie for next-to-last, along with Utah and Virginia. All three states have an entirely toothless ethics process. (Five states — Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming — have no ethics agency at all.)

The report’s Vermont section is a depressing read. It notes that our Ethics Commission is purely an advisory body with “no authority to investigate or enforce the ethics laws.” All it can do is review ethics complaints and refer them on to agencies with actual power. And all of its activity is shielded from public scrutiny.

This is no surprise to anyone who’s been following my coverage of the Commission’s establishment on this blog and in the pages of Seven Days. (If you do a site search for “ethics,” you’ll find the relevant stories.) Indeed, an entirely toothless ethics process is exactly what the legislature intended. After staunchly resisting the very idea that Vermont needed ethical standards, lawmakers did just barely enough to make it seem like they cared. But they don’t.

And the Democratic majority bears the responsibility for this sad state of affairs, because Democrats have the power. They used it to stonewall every idea for real ethics enforcement. They show every sign of continuing to hold that position. In fact, lawmakers essentially bullied the Ethics Commission into rewriting its own rules on advisory opinions to end any possibility that any of the panel’s work would ever be available for public inspection.

A secret ethics process. Isn’t it ironic, don’tcha think?

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Welcome to Vermont, Mr. McNeil

Oh boy, there’s more bad news from the Vermont Democratic Party. The latest from Team Turmoil is an official notice from the Federal Election Commission informing the VDP that it has yet to file its required monthly financial report for July, and warning of serious consequences.

The failure to timely file a complete report may result in civil money penalties, an audit or legal enforcement action. The civil money penalty calculation for late reports does not include a grace period and begins on the day following the due date for the report.

The July report was due August 20, so the fines have been piling up, potentially, since August 21. (The fines are assessed, or not, on a case-by-case basis. There’s no set dollar amount.) And the August report is due on September 20. If it doesn’t go in on time, the daily fines could double.

These filings are a royal pain (says anyone who’s had to prepare them), but are a necessary function for a political party. Failure to file is, well, a violation of federal law.

Party spokesperson R. Christopher DiMezzo offers words of assurance. “The FEC knows about the situation,’ he said. “We’re in contact.”

The delay in filing, he explained, is entirely due to alleged embezzlements by former staffer Brandon Batham, which is under investigation by Montpelier police. “The filing is held up because of the law enforcement investigation,” he said. “The report will go in when we figure out how to handle it.”

Well, maybe, but my bullshit detector is pinging. The party could always submit a report and revise it later if necessary. Happens all the time. Plus, does the financial filing really depend on the police investigation? We already know how much money is involved, don’t we?

Don’t we?

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When a politician says “It’s not political,” you can bet your ass it’s political

On Thursday, Democratic Attorney General T.J. Donovan sided with Republican Governor Phil Scott against Democratic Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah Fair George in a high-profile murder case. And he insisted, naturally, that his decision had nothing to do with politics.

OK, before we get to the merits of his argument, let’s make one thing clear. It’s political. Whether Donovan wanted it to be or not — whether politics entered into his thinking or not — his decision indisputably has political ramifications.

In May, George dismissed charges against Aita Gurung for the 2017 murder of his wife because George decided she wouldn’t be able to rebut Gurung’s insanity defense. (A court-hired expert and a prosecution expert had both concluded that Gurung was insane at the time of the fatal attack.) It was one of three high-profile dismissals by George on the same day. Later, Scott asked Donovan to review the three cases.

Donovan was George’s predecessor in Chittenden County. His decision in the Gurung case clearly casts doubt on her judgment because he has just overruled her judgment. His protestations of “utmost respect” for George ring hollow.

In a media scrum after Gurung’s re-arraignment Friday, Donovan presented a bunch of inadequate and contradictory explanations. He sounded like he was grasping at straws.

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