Author Archives: John S. Walters

About John S. Walters

Writer, editor, sometime radio personality, author of "Roads Less Traveled: Visionary New England Lives."

Hiatus 2: The Endiggening

For the second time in its brief history, The Vermont Political Observer is headed into the deep freeze. I’ve accepted a gig as a political columnist and contributor for VTDigger. I’ll be writing weekly columns on the website, and contributing daily to Digger’s “Final Reading,” an email newsletter that you can get for free simply by signing up.

The folks at Digger approached me a few weeks ago. I wasn’t particularly looking for a job, nor did I expect any offers, and it took some thought before I accepted. I love the freedom of blogging. And last time around at Seven Days, fitting me into a journalistic enterprise proved to be quite the strain (on all of us).

But hey, paid positions don’t come along every day in the news biz. Hardly at all, in fact. In the end, the offer was too good to refuse.

And when they get tired of me or I get tired of them, I can always come back here. And I will. Stay tuned!

A complete failure of justice

Gotta hand it to USA TODAY (all caps, as God intended) for uncovering the distressing case of Leonard Forte, a retired cop from New York state who was accused and convicted in 1988 of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old Vermont girl. His conviction was overturned on appeal, and that’s when things got weird. In 1995, facing a second trial, Forte claimed he was on death’s door and that the stress of a trial would surely kill him.

And then… nothing.

For almost 25 years.

Well, not entirely “nothing”. The case would occasionally get another look, Forte would claim ill health, and back into the deep freeze it went.

If USA TODAY is to be believed, the prosecutor overseeing the case — longtime assistant attorney general David Tartter — wasn’t exactly devoting a lot of energy to it. “Neglect” seems the best descriptor for his approach.

Meanwhile, the accuser is now 45 years old and living with the consequences of the assault. Forte is 78 and still claims to be dying, but has been enjoying a pretty decent retirement in Florida. And the chances of bringing him to justice appeared faint, thanks to this:

The USA TODAY Network found that Vermont officials have destroyed materials key to the prosecution of Forte, including most of the original trial record. The mistaken destruction of transcripts and court audio recordings appears to be due to the unprecedented age of the case, by far the oldest open prosecution in Vermont and certainly one of the oldest in the country where the defendant is not a fugitive.

… Michele Dinko, the alleged victim, said in a recent interview that Tartter has expressed to her that he has little hope left of prosecuting Forte. Dinko said Tartter also told her privately that having the case loom over Forte for so many decades is its own kind of punishment.

That’d be a hard “no,” Mr. Tartter.

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Bookshelf: A simple lie will obliterate a complicated truth

Florida: The place where reality goes to die, where men’s dreams turn to rot. where history is an inconvenience consistently trumped by comforting legends.

This book, I tell you.

Finding Florida was published in 2013; I found it in my local library, and am I glad I did. (It’s still in print.) It’s 450-odd pages of mythbusting excellence. Not only did I learn a lot about why Florida is the way it is, I also learned a lot about why the whole U.S. of A. is the way it is.

Which is to say, a place built on myths and legends, a place fond of ignoring complicated truth.

Allman starts with the early Spanish explorers — who weren’t explorers so much as they were clueless treasure hunters. Ponce de Leon never got anywhere near St. Augustine and didn’t search for the Fountain of Youth; he came to Florida to search for gold. He lost his life for his trouble.

As for the other “heroic explorer,” Hernando de Soto, he spent three miserable years wandering the American Southeast in a real-life Aguirre: The Wrath of God situation: a treasure hunt turned slow-motion death spiral.

Sorry. “Spoiler Alert”

Ponce and de Soto, as we know them today, are entirely the creation of 19th Century American writers, Washington Irving and Henry Schoolcraft, who valued a great story over the truth.

Florida, meanwhile, continued to cast a spell on white folks from far and wide. Presidents Jefferson, Madison and Monroe wrested the peninsula away from the Spanish, who cared so little about the Godforsaken place that they put up virtually no resistance. Those distinguished Founders then embarked on a three-decade campaign of genocide against the Seminoles — who were, in fact, a few thousand natives, whites, free blacks and Hispanics who lived side-by-side, mostly practicing subsistence agriculture.

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Proof: Santa Claus is a conservative a**hole

Vermont Republican Party chair Deb Billado is known for penning ultraconservative, pro-Trump screeds in her official role as the party’s leader. But now, at Christmastime, she’s outdone herself with what I can only hope is a feeble attempt at “humor,” which would serve as further proof that there’s no such thing as conservative humor. (Lookin’ at you, @NewsDoneRight.) Because if she was serious, man oh man, she’s gone round the twist.

Billado’s latest epistle takes the form of a letter from Santa who, as he passed over Vermont, observed “a warm light” from below — a light that “conveyed a good feeling to the people, one of security and goodness.”

That light? The Vermont Republican Party.

Santa tops that off by observing that Billado had been “chosen to be its head to steer the course, right and true.”

Ah. The Chosen One. Where have I heard that before?

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VSEA doubles down in spite of a weak hand

The Vermont State Employees Association may be setting itself up for a fall. Or at the very least, a split within its own ranks and among its political supporters.

Last Friday, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith issued a report to Gov. Phil Scott about the prison abuse crisis, and I have to say, it looks like he’s taking this seriously and coming down hard across the board. He wrote of the need for a “culture change” in the Department of Corrections and specific changes in how administrators handle internal wrongdoing and offending personnel. He also called for drug testing for DOC employees, tougher hiring criteria and a more thorough ban on prison personnel having sex with inmates.

The VSEA accused Smith of a “knee-jerk reaction,” which is, um, ironic, don’tcha think, since it’s the VSEA itself whose knee is jerking.

In workplace disputes, labor unions’ first reaction is to protect the interests of its members. There are good and valid reasons for this. But it’s not always the best thing to do — for the health of the organization, the public interest and even the greatest good for union members.

“I think I would characterize [Smith’s report] as an overreach to try to hide from the public the fact that this case is really gross managerial and incompetence,” said VSEA executive director Steve Howard, despite the fact that Smith targeted front-line workers and administration alike. Never have I heard Smith try to blame the scandal solely on VSEA members. Indeed, his quickest and most decisive actions have been aimed at the top ranks of the DOC, not the poor downtrodden wage slaves.

Howard added that “99 percent” of DOC workers are “upstanding” employees. That percentage might be a little high, but let’s take his point at face value. Isn’t it in the interest of the 99 percent to eliminate the bad ones? It’s not only inmates who have been victimized; DOC employees themselves have reported being subject to harassment and retaliation. Shouldn’t Howard be just as quick to protect their interests?

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When energy is "renewable" but not exactly clean

Can we stop talking about how wind turbines destroy ridge lines?

Real shocker from VTDigger: The large-scale hydropower dams in northern Quebec, which provide much of Vermont’s supply of “renewable” electricity, have taken a human toll on First Nations communities in the far north. And will take an even greater toll as more dams are built.

Because of course they have and of course they will. Each dam floods huge tracts of land. The Innu and Inuit people depend heavily on using their land for hunting and gathering. Their lives are being constricted by the buildout of hydro power, which is in high demand from New England states eager to meet renewable energy targets. Which, in turn, means that more dams are in the works.

By exporting our environmental pain to faraway people. Or, as Inuit elder Alex Saunders put it, “Think about what you’re buying here. You’re buying the misery from the local people of northern Canada.”

You put it that, way, HQ’s “renewable” energy seems a little less renewable.

This isn’t a simple issue. HQ is a major resource for non-carbon-emitting power, and will continue to be. But the lives of indigenous people shouldn’t be swept aside — especially when Vermonters are so queasy about the esthetics of solar and wind installations in their home state, and seem to want to preserve Vermont’s [ahem, false] purity at the expense of others.

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A case study in the pitfalls of free market health insurance

Seems like it was just the other night I was writing about a certain candidate who believes the cure for the health care crisis is to give insurance companies free rein. A Thousand Flowers Will Bloom, goes the fantasy. Problem is, when you let your garden grow, you get a thousand flowers and a million weeds.

A classic example of this was (briefly) in the news earlier this month, when the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation imposed its largest-ever fine against an insurance company.

The offender, Companion Life Insurance of South Carolina, was fined for selling cartoonishly bad health care policies to Vermont college students between 2014 and 2016 without ever seeking the requisite DFR approval. If the policies had been submitted to the state, they would have been found in violation of both state and federal law.

The policies did not cover most of the medical conditions that commonly befall college students: athletic injuries, mental health coverage, substance use treatment, immunizations, preventative screenings (including for STDs) and contraceptive management.

This is the kind of thing the Meg Hansens of the world see as the bright shiny free-market future of health care. Fortunately for us, we do regulate insurance.

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