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?

Maybe not. After all, the VDP has hired an outside firm to audit its books going back three years. Le’s hope there are no spiders in the attic, but who knows.

This is the latest in a series of embarrassing revelations that must have Scott McNeil rethinking his recent move to Vermont. McNeil is the VDP’s new executive director, the party’s top paid staff position. He arrived at the beginning of this month after a stint as ED of the North Dakota Democrats. His hiring was announced at the end of July. Since then:

  • The party announced on August 2 that staffer Brandon Batham had been forced out over the alleged embezzlement of nearly $3,000 in party funds.
  • The party announced on August 18 that, erhm, actually the figure was not $3,000, but nearly $19,000.
  • The Windham County Democrats considered a resolution calling for a new slate of party officers, asserting that the embezzlement had breached the trust of party faithful (and, ahem, potential donors).
  • Although the Windham Dems watered down the resolution to roughly the allowable portion of lead in school drinking water (four parts per billion), there’s likely to be a lot more blowback at the Vermont Dems’ state committee meeting this Saturday. The Windham party chair, John Hagen, told me that many other county chairs are deeply concerned about the embezzlement and what it says about the quality of party leadership.
  • It’s still quite possible that the scandal will bring down the guy who just hired McNeil — party chair Terje Anderson — at the party’s mid-November reorg meeting.
  • And the latest: The VDP’s failure to file its FEC report.

Yikes. The deep-red landscape of North Dakota must be looking mighty friendly in retrospect.

Now, I’m sure McNeil knew at least some of this when he took the job. Batham’s “resignation” came in mid-July. Party leaders must have told McNeil about it before he signed on the dotted line, right?

Let’s hope slash assume they did. Even so, the worst of it came after his hire was announced. At that time, Anderson was (wrongly) certain that $3,000 was the extent of the damage. The party was working with Batham on a repayment plan, after which the matter would have been dropped without criminal entanglements. Things got much more serious when the dollar figure escalated to $19,000. And by then, McNeil was on his way to Vermont. Too late for second thoughts.

Even without all of this, McNeil’s new position isn’t exactly stress-free. The party has been woefully underperforming financially since Peter Shumlin exited the stage. It’s suffered from revolving-door turnover in staff and party chairs. McNeil is the party’s fourth executive director in less than two years, including Anderson’s just-concluded four-month stint as interim E.D.

Expectations are high for the new guy. Anderson has repeatedly pointed to McNeil as the solution for the VDP’s organizational and financial woes. And while McNeil will have his hands full with the Augean stable of the institutional party, he will also have to pivot quickly to the 2020 campaign. Dems are hoping — or maybe expecting is the better word — to cement their big legislative gains from 2018 and extend their majorities even further next November. And there’s the big challenge of mounting an effective campaign against Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

Vermont is far friendlier turf for a Democratic operative than is North Dakota. But the pressures are higher here. Democrats expect to win, and win big. And, perhaps because of their essentially unchallenged position atop the political anthill, they are also prone to internal squabbling, grudge-nurturing, procrastination and failure to fully capitalize on their built-in advantages.

Welcome to Vermont, Mr. McNeil. Break a leg.

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