As Vermont’s prison scandal continues to spread and deepen, I find myself pondering a simple question:
How are the Democrats going to handle this?
The latest in this head-spinning affair is the indefinite suspension of the top two officials at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. DOC Commissioner-For-Now Mike Touchette announced the suspensions in a Friday newsdump. He didn’t explain the reasons — but dollars to donuts it’s no coincidence that the action comes a few days after Human Services Secretary Mike Smith launched his own investigation, which initially (at least) focused on the state’s only women’s prison.
And while we wait for more dominoes to fall, let’s consider that the scandal puts the Democrats in a tight spot. At first glance, you might think they’d be rarin’ to dig up a nice juicy election-year scandal that might put a few dents in Gov. Phil Scott’s Teflon.
But maybe not.
Some factors to consider. Former DOC commissioner Lisa Menard served from 2015 to 2018. Yep, she was appointed by Democrat Peter Shumlin. She and Touchette are longtime veterans of the department, who rose through the ranks under Democratic and Republican governors. The documented problems at the women’s prison go back to at least 2012, which would be Shumlin’s first term. This scandal may have blown open on Scott’s watch, but it’s really a bipartisan issue.
The potential principals in this affair — Menard, Touchette, Smith, and his predecessor Al Gobeille — are all familiar faces around state government. They are past or present denizens of the Statehouse bubble. They are well known and — rightly or wrongly — respected by legislators. Rep. Alice Emmons, who’s served in the House since 1983, is the longtime chair of the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, which will tackle the prison scandal. She and her committee have had responsibility for oversight of the system, and failed to keep the system on the straight and narrow. Is she going to dig deep into this thing, or will she be inclined to lay the blame at the feet of “a few bad apples”?
And again, if I hear that phrase in January, I’m going to scream. Because even at this early stage, there’s overwhelming evidence that this problem isn’t confined to the front-line workers. It’s clear that DOC management actively conspired to keep things quiet.
But wait, there’s more! One of the Democrats’ most powerful political allies is the Vermont State Employees Association, whose members include prison guards — and whose president, Dave Bellini, was a DOC lifer before he took over the union leadership. Will House Dems be anxious to confront the VSEA? I doubt it.
Also, the scandal has enveloped Democratic Attorney General T.J. Donovan. Will his fellow Dems be anxious to strap him over a barrel? I suspect not, even if they are secretly seething over his legal defense of a rotten system.
Lawmakers in general, including Democratic ones, give quite a bit of deference to their bubble buddies in state government. That’s one reason why you keep seeing The Usual Suspects drift from state job to state job, with no one really questioning whether being a past governor’s chief of staff qualifies you to run the state college system, or whether heading up a failed conservative SuperPAC prepares you for a senior position in Scott’s executive office.
Really, the Democratic legislature has plenty of incentive to approach this scandal with caution. To be honest, would I trust them over Smith and Scott? Or over Emmons’ Senate counterpart, Republican Joe Benning, who’s a straight shooter and a defense attorney in real life?
I might not, really.
We shall see. But if Emmons’ committee whips out the kid gloves, it will be a bad day for good government in Vermont. And it will be Just Another Day inside the Statehouse Bubble.