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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Free advice for the last people on Earth who would take it

So, over at journalismjobs.com there’s an intriguing listing from my former employer:

Award-winning, locally owned Seven Days newspaper is on the hunt for a political columnist or a news reporter to join our state government team.

That’s either/or. They’re going to hire one or the other. Which means they haven’t made up their minds whether they’re keeping “Fair Game.” It’ll depend, one must assume, on the inclination of the best applicants.

Before I begin the uninformed speculation and free advice, let me make one thing clear. I have no inside information. At this point, I have less insight into the inner workings of Seven Days than I do for True North Reports, the ha-ha “news” site bankrolled by reclusive moneybags Lenore Broughton.

When I got the ziggy, I didn’t know whether they intended to keep the column going or kill it. In recent years, Seven Days has sought to distance itself from its hippie-dippie alt roots. Maybe the Peter Freyne Memorial Chair no longer fit in with the highfalutin aspirations of Vermont’s largest organ.

On the other hand, it’s tough to imagine a Seven Days without “Fair Game.” Back in the bad old days, Peter Freyne was their only news guy, to use the term very loosely. The column has been a staple of the paper since practically day one.

Also, at this point it occupies a singular place in Vermont’s news ecosystem. There are no other political columnists, besides the part-time ruminations of VTDigger’s Jon Margolis. “Fair Game” remains incredibly popular — a must-read for anyone in Vermont politics or news media. That’s a lot of legacy and pageviews to surrender. Also, Vermont politics needs a good shitkicker. It’s far too comfortable a space right now.

But if they’re going to keep “Fair Game,” they need to make some decisions about what exactly it is and what their expectations are. Otherwise it’s not fair to the new hire. It sure wasn’t fair to me.

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Windham Dems Quickly Dispose of Hot Potato

At a meeting Monday, the Windham County Democratic Committee disposed of a resolution calling for new leadership in the state party. Instead, the panel approved the drafting of a letter expressing concern over an alleged embezzlement of party funds and appreciation for actions taken by party leaders to prevent any recurrence.

The resolution was drafted by county party chair John Hagen after consultation with other officers in the organization. The meeting was attended by 23 party members, including almost every Democratic lawmaker from Windham County. If there had been any momentum in favor of the resolution, the air exited the balloon when Hagen told the meeting that, about an hour before the meeting began, he had received an email from state party chair Terje Anderson providing a full history of the embezzlement case and outlining new steps the party was taking in response. In the email, Hagen said, Anderson “addresses every part of the resolution.”

Nice timing, that. If Anderson sought to influence the proceedings with a last-ditch plea, it’s fair to say he succeeded.

The resolution was in response to alleged embezzlement of more than $18,000 in state party funds by former staffer Brandon Batham. (The Vermont Democratic Party has requested a criminal investigation by the Montpelier Police Department, and is conducting an audit going back three years to be sure that no more irregularities are hiding in the weeds.) It called for a new slate of state party officers to be presented at the party’s reorganization meeting on November 16, citing concerns about management oversight and the scandal’s potential effect on fundraising.

No one spoke in favor of the resolution, although several attendees had been involved in creating it. Most were mollified by Anderson’s late email — even though they had yet to actually see it.

“I wasn’t expecting the resolution to pass,” said Hagen after the meeting. “The intent was to throw a rock in the water and see what came up to the surface.”

That rock produced a tidal wave of retreat from the resolution. The most vociferous opponent was Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who characterized party leaders as “a bunch of volunteers doing the best they can,” she said. “In my mind, they have revised and updated their procedures. This resolution just fuels the flames.” She advocated putting the affair behind them and turning the party’s attention on the 2020 election campaign.

Committee member Andy Burrows of Guilford noted that before Batham was hired on party staff, he had been chair of the Windham Democrats — and had not performed well. “We worked with him for a long time,” Burrows said. “He was a shifty sort of guy. We should ;have said Batham was not appropriate for the party job.”

Afterward, Burrows elaborated on his statement, noting that he questioned Batham’s work ethic, not his probity. “He volunteered for many tasks, but he did very little,” Burrows said of Batham. “We wouldn’t have recommended him. And [the party] didn’t ask.”

Which ought to raise questions about the thoroughness of the Vermont Democratic Party’s hiring process in addition to its financial oversight. But I digress.

2016 gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel spoke against the resolution. “When embezzlement happens, it’s not always the fault of leadership,” she said. Rather than suggesting a new slate, she advised allowing the reorganization process to play out.

Several committee members expressed a desire to meet with Anderson directly before considering the resolution. Rep. Mike Mrowicki (D-Putney) moved to table the resolution. “We’re nowhere near consensus,” he said.

White even objected to tabling; she wanted the county committee to immediately drop the matter. “We should send a nice letter saying we appreciate the work being done on new procedures,” White said. She added that “We shouldn’t judge Brandon. I don’t know what’s going on with him. I don’t think he’s a bad guy.”

Of course, the resolution didn’t judge Batham at all; it focused on the potential failings of responsible leaders. But whatever.

“We should send a thoughtful letter stating that we’re glad to hear they’re working on new procedures, and asking them to come down and talk to us about it,” said Burrows.

White objected to that as well, saying she didn’t want to take the time for more talk. “We should thank [leadership] for taking this seriously, and let the reorganization process go ahead,” White said.

At that point, committee members deferred to White. Her resolution, calling for a thankful letter and nothing more, was approved on a unanimous voice vote.

Members of the Windham County committee clearly felt uncomfortable expressing any real questions about party leadership, especially on the eve of the 2020 election season. But this is probably not the end of Anderson’s troubles. Many committee members expect robust debate at the VDP’s state committee meeting on September 21. Hagen noted that he had talked with other county chairs, and found that many were still actively concerned about the Batham case and its effect on fundraising.

And even in the absence of an actual call for change in leadership, the incumbent officeholders are likely to face sharp questions — at the very least — at the reorganization meeting on November 16.

 

State ethics panel whitewashes its own past

This week, the Vermont State Ethics Commission withdrew its October 2018 advisory opinion about Gov. Phil Scott’s relationship with DuBois Construction, the firm he co-owned before becoming governor. It was a thorough exercise in retconning: The panel retroactively changed the rules of its own game.

Ironic, isn’t it, that a government body that’s all about ethics would try to whitewash its own past. It has even removed the original opinion from its website, replacing it with the following brief statement:

The Vermont State Ethics Commission at its September 4, 2019 meeting approved Executor Director Larry Novins’ recommendation to withdraw Advisory Opinion 18-01 issued on October 1, 2018. The opinion discussed the governor’s financial relationship with his former company which contracts with the State of Vermont. The Commission concluded that the process used at the time was incorrect.

Yeah, great, whatever. I don’t know why the commission chose to make this move almost a year after the fact. I suspect (but cannot prove) that there was pressure from the Scott administration to remove this blemish from the gov’s record. After all, Scott and his minions seem far more concerned about the opinion than anyone else in state government or politics. The voters certainly didn’t care when they overwhelmingly re-elected the guy last November.

To recap the DuBois saga… When Scott became governor, he had to divest himself of his half-ownership in DuBois, which frequently bids on state contracts. His $2.5 million stake represented the lion’s share of his own net worth.

The simplest remedy was to sell his share. Problem is, DuBois’ net worth is tied up in land, buildings and equipment. And a $2.5 million bank loan would have been a millstone around DuBois’ neck. Scott’s solution: He financed the loan himself.

That removed him from ownership and management. However, it tied up most of his net worth in a long-term loan to DuBois, and it provided a nice $75,000 per month year income stream from the company’s monthly payments. In short, Scott had no ownership interest, but he still had a huge financial interest in DuBois’ prosperity.

And that’s clearly a violation of the state ethics code as it’s currently written.

Of course, part of the commission’s retconning exercise is a rewrite of the ethics code. Something tells me it will be carefully crafted to put DuBois-style arrangements in the clear. The other part is a rewrite of its internal processes, which will prevent future cases like l’affaire Scott.

The commission’s current processes were established by legislation in 2018. Those processes occur entirely behind closed doors, exempt from open-meetings and public-records law — with one exception: The issuance of advisory opinions at the request of state officials, employees, or anyone else. Those opinions were the only commission function subject to public release.

It was the “anyone else” that triggered all this mess. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group requested an advisory opinion instead of filing a complaint, because VPIRG wanted the end product to be made public. And it got exactly what it wanted. The state ethics commission ruled that the DuBois deal was in violation of the ethics code — and released that opinion, as it was bound to do.

The opinion was not enforceable. It was purely advisory. But Scott didn’t like it, not one little bit.

Ironically enough, neither did Democratic lawmakers, who might have been expected to exploit the opinion for political gain. Instead, legislative leaders sided with the governor, and raked the commission over the coals during the 2019 session. Their intent, they asserted, had never been to allow outsiders to seek advisory opinions. Well, they had only themselves to blame; they wrote the law that allowed such a move. The commission made submissive noises and promised to make changes, so the legislature dropped any effort to rewrite the law.

And now the commission is following through on the submission routine.

Let me make one thing clear. I don’t suspect the governor of any actual wrongdoing. He’s an honest guy, and it would take a determined (and criminal) effort to subvert the state’s contracting process.

But the ethics code is designed to prevent the appearance of conflict as well as actual conflict itself. I know Scott was between a rock and a hard place on how to divest from DuBois. But ethical standards exist for a reason.

Retconning the standards to benefit a single individual who’s in a tough spot is fundamentally antithetical to the purpose of having an ethics code in the first place. It’s just one more sign that no one in state government is actually serious about ethics — they just want to make it look like they’re serious, so folks like me and VPIRG will shut our yaps and go away.