The scandal-plagued Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility may need an independent monitor to provide an outside view of its management. Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan floated the idea Monday, in an interview from the meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington.
A report in last week’s Seven Days outlined a years-long pattern of sexual assault and other misbehavior at Vermont’s only women’s prison — and a pattern of covering up or ignoring those abuses. Since then, Gov. Phil Scott has ordered Human Services Secretary Mike Smith to launch an investigation, Smith has assumed managerial control of the prison and House Democrats plan to conduct hearings on the scandal as soon as the new legislative session begins next month.
Donovan said the idea of an independent monitor arose Monday in a side conversation at the NAAG meeting. “This has been done at the federal level with troubled prisons,” Donovan said. “Usually, there’s a list of criteria for compliance that the independent party would monitor.” Donovan isn’t ready to advocate for the move, but he noted that “we may need some sort of independent third party.”
Donovan has not launched his own investigation of the prison; instead, he is assisting with Smith’s probe. There’s also a criminal investigation underway by the Vermont State Police. Donovan defended his decision to stay in a supporting role for now.
“We need clarity regarding who’s doing what,” Donovan said. “If criminal charges are filed, that always goes first.” He added that the attorney general’s role is “complicated” because he serves as the state of Vermont’s lawyer — which means that in addition to being the state’s top law enforcement official, he also represents the corrections department and human services agency.
“We need to work collaboratively,” he added. “This can’t be political.”
Well, yes and no. An investigation into a sitting administration unavoidably has a political dimension, which is why an internal review by Smith may not suffice. Indeed, Donovan kinda-sorta makes that point himself, in broaching the idea of an independent monitor.
Besides, the attorney general’s office is inherently a political one. It’s an elective office, and candidates identify themselves by party. It’s not uncommon for elected AGs to eventually run for higher office. It’s universally expected that Donovan himself will eventually do so.
If he does harbor higher ambitions, he would do well to strike a balance between his official duties and his political obligations. I’m not saying he should raise hell and make wild, partisan accusations. But if he continues his current path of rigorously staying inside the lines, he may find himself losing credibility in the Democratic Party. He is, after all, putting himself in a subservient position to a Republican administration. And we are, after all, entering an election year when Donovan’s party will be trying to unseat a Republican incumbent.
In our interview, Donovan underscored the need for transparency in all areas of the scandal. That’s good to hear, although his advocacy of transparency has often taken a backseat to — again — his position as defender of state government and its privileges. We can only hope that he and Smith and Scott will follow through on transparency, for better and for worse.