Last Thursday was New Year’s Eve, the beginning of a long holiday weekend. What better time for a politician to dump potentially damaging news?
And yep, there was Attorney General T.J. Donovan issuing not one, but two press releases on Thursday afternoon the first at 2:31 and the second at 3:14. Each showcased the less progressive, and reflexively law ‘n order, side of him.
First came news that Donovan was dropping of multiple serious felony charges against former St. Albans police officer Zachary Pigeon and his father Allen, for allegedly removing a woman from her home and assaulting her. The woman had come forward with accusations that Zachary had sexually assaulted her some years ago when she was a child. Donovan made the decision because he could not “meet the elements of the charged crimes beyond a reasonable doubt at this time.”
This case had been filed by the Franklin County State’s Attorney, who apparently saw grounds for prosecution. But the SA punted the case up to Donovan due to conflicts of interest. And now Donovan is tossing it out the window.
The exact opposite tack was taken in the second press release, which touted a state Supreme Court ruling in the case of State v. Alta Gurung, which means that a new competency hearing will be conducted for Gurung.
For those just joining us, Gurung was accused of the violent murder of his wife and near-killing of his mother-in-law. Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah Fair George had dropped the case because an examination found him not competent to stand trial. Donovan took the unusual step of picking up the case, disagreeing with George’s judgment in the process.
For all I know, he may have done the right thing in both cases. But when viewed from outside, in the light of what we know about Donovan’s predilections, they sure do smell funny.
In the Gurung case, Donovan sided with Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who questioned George’s action — and overruled George, a fellow Democrat. The Pigeon case shows Donovan taking the side of law enforcement — or in this case, a former officer of the law.
In Gurung, Donovan is taking a hard line on a long-odds case; he’s giving up on prosecuting the former cop. If I were Pigeon’s accuser, I’d feel like the system had failed me. Just as Donovan failed Kiah Morris by refusing to pursue harassment charges against those who hounded her from her legislative seat.
The Pigeon case is just the latest in a long series of refusals by Donovan to prosecute police officers, which is a continuation of former AG Bill Sorrell’s pillow-soft handling of police.
(He’s also taking a hard line on the person of color and the easy way out on two white defendants, but it may be unfair to read that much into it.)
Donovan seemed like a rising star of Democratic politics in 2012 when he took on the daunting challenge of primarying Sorrell in 2012, and nearly beat the man who’d occupied the AGO since 1997. Now, he seems to be evolving into Sorrell 2.0. He takes populist positions on big multi-state lawsuits, but within Vermont he argues against government transparency and reflexively takes the side of law enforcement in cases of possible wrongdoing.
He may still be a rising star in that he seems to be first in line for a future run at the governorship or a Congressional seat. But a fresh hope for courageous Democratic politics, he is not.