Author Archives: John S. Walters

About John S. Walters

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

If I hear someone say "a few bad apples," I'm gonna scream

The Vermont Department of Corrections (Not Exactly As Illustrated) (Or Maybe It Is)

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.

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Let's Not Fix the Mental Health System and Say We Did

Oh, great. The state’s Department of Mental Health is finalizing a ten-year plan to improve the state’s inadequate mental health care system. The highlights, errrrr lowlights, include:

  • It doesn’t appear to address the system’s biggest shortfall, i.e. the lack of resources for the worst cases.
  • It echoes the approach promulgated by the Shumlin administration and legislature after Tropical Storm Irene. Which, for those just joining us, failed to do what it promised.
  • There seems to be nothing about the lack of resources in the prison system.
  • There’s nothing about providing more funding to put the plan into action.

So there’s that.

The report focuses on linking treatment of mental and physical illness, “eliminating stigma around mental health and expanding community-based treatment programs.” That’s nice. But meanwhile, people with profound mental illnesses continue to be stuck in hospital emergency rooms in greater numbers and for longer periods.

That has nothing to do with “stigma” or “community-based treatment programs.” It has everything to do with Vermont’s lack of capacity to treat our severely mentally ill. That’s been a problem since Irene damaged the state hospital at Waterbury.

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Bookshelf: Three Authors in Search of a Scumbag

There are two new books about the Harvey Weinstein scandal: She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, and Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow. Both are worth reading, for different reasons.

The three authors spent months and months uncovering Weinstein’s criminal sexual conduct, despite the film producer’s thorough, expensive and sometimes illegal efforts to thwart their work.

Oh, I guess I should say “alleged” criminal conduct, since Weinstein won’t go on trial until next month. But c’mon, the guy’s a scumbag. Throughout his movie career, he used his power to exploit women and destroy their lives and careers. These books remind you of exactly how evil he was.

Kantor and Twohey are reporters for the New York Times. Their book is more straightforward, and is a better primer on the scandal and how it turbocharged the #MeToo movement. If you’re going to read one book on this subject, make it She Said.

But after the Times published their Weinstein stories, they moved on to other assignments. The last section of the book, in fact, is about the Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford saga, which the two women also covered for the Times.

Farrow’s book goes deeper into the Weinstein case because he continued to follow the story for The New Yorker after the original stories were published. He also explores the complicity of the media and the legal system in helping Weinstein continue his predatory activities for years. And he exposes the efforts of an international web of operatives who worked for Weinstein in trying to uncover dirt on reporters and victims.

Catch and Kill also, somewhat problematically, presents as something akin to a spy novel. Take this author photo from the back cover.

The Spy Who Reported On Me
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Donovan Knew

The Vanishing Wunderkind

If there was any doubt about whether Attorney General T.J. Donovan might run for governor in 2020, he has just eliminated it.

Not by making an announcement, but by making it all but impossible to get the Democratic nomination. The guy’s so radioactive right now, he ought to just lay low for at least two more years.

Because it turns out he played a major role in concealing the scandal at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. We know this thanks to Seven Days‘ Paul Heintz, who has done the near-impossible. He uncovered a major scandal in state government — and then, one week later, he has substantially advanced the story, at a time when every media outlet in Vermont is pursuing this thing. Or should be.

Today’s piece reveals that pretty much everyone in state government knew about widespread abuse at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility long before it became public, including officials who loudly expressed their horror and astonishment that there were problems at the prison.

Including, most notably for our purposes, T.J. Donovan, who has known about systematic problems at the prison for two and a half years.

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Holcombe Tabs Familiar Face for Campaign Manager

Cameron Russell is ready to give it another try. He served as campaign manager for Christine Hallquist’s gubernatorial candidacy in 2018; now he’s accepted the same post in Rebecca Holcombe’s bid to unseat Republican Gov. Phil Scott in 2020. Russell had previously been a staffer in the Vermont Democratic Party from 2014 through 2016.

“There is no one in the state better positioned to take on this role,” Holcombe commented in a press release, “and I am fortunate to have his experience and knowledge of Vermont’s communities and political landscape as part of my campaign.”

Holcombe began her campaign with staff from outside the state, but had been hoping to attract a manager with Vermont experience. And honestly, there aren’t many of those around.

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Donovan mulls outside monitor for women's prison

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.

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Holy Crap, the Free Press just "both-sidesed" the Confederate Flag

As a person who hasn’t gotten around to canceling their increasingly-irrelevant subscription to the Burlington Free Press, I get its daily briefing in my inbox. And today’s edition greeted me with THIS.

That’s right, the former Best Newspaper In Vermont is peddling Stars “N Bars claptrap right out of the Nikki Haley playbook. “Some argue the Confederate battle flag is racist”??????

And to be clear, this isn’t simply a case of some intern carelessly writing a subhead for the daily email. That same idea is peddled throughout the story.

The flag has come under national criticism in recent years, seen at events such as the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Um, exsqueeze me? “In recent years“??????? That rag has been the banner of racist oppression since Appomattox.

The germ of this idea comes from Paul Searls, history professor at Northern Vermont University (which I will always think of as Lyndon Johnson U, don’t @ me). He asserted that the flag may not carry the same overtly racist message up here that it does in the South.

Some Vermonters might view the Confederate flag as a symbol of ideals and their lifestyles, Searls said, and fly as a symbol of resistance against the existing order and outsiders perceived as threats to their well-being.

Yeah, well, those Vermonters are ignorant of their country’s history and shouldn’t be given a free pass for such.

Searls did also describe the battle flag as “a potently provocative symbol,” so there’s that. And the article does finally come down on the side of “the flag is inherently a bad thing.” But in the process, it sets up a false “debate” that the S&B can be anything other than a toxic instigation. Thanks, Free Press!