Category Archives: Vermont Democratic Party

VT Dems tiptoe around embezzlement case

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. On Saturday, the Vermont Democratic Party’s state committee held its first meeting since the full extent of the Brandon Batham embezzlement came to light. But there seemed little taste for confrontation or tough questions. The majority seemed content with party leadership’s promises to tighten up financial and management controls and generally lock the barn door after they’d lost a horse.

Recapping the basics: In July, party officials discovered that Batham had paid himself nearly $3,000 for apparently nonexistent expenses and mileage. Batham resigned on the spot. A couple weeks later, party leaders discovered another $15,500 in extra paychecks Batham apparently cut to himself. The matter was referred to the Montpelier Police Department for investigation. The incident also raised questions about financial and managerial oversight, or the lack thereof.

At Saturday’s meeting, party chair Terje Anderson gave a thorough, convincing case that Things Would Be Different From Now On. An outside firm, Political CFOs, has been hired to do all the VDP’s accounting and financial reporting. (The firm has submitted the VDP’s overdue August financial report to the Federal Elections Commission and filed the September report on time.) At least two people must approve every check issued from party funds. Anderson has been communicating with donors and party officials, and offered to meet with any activist, county committee or donor in an effort to “regain trust.”

(Keeping the books had been an internal staff function, and the quality of the work depended on the person responsible. Former staffer and financial whiz Selene Hofer-Shall “ran a very tight ship,” said Anderson. “After she left, there were a lot of internal struggles to keep it on track.”)

One more big thing: Anderson said he’d pored over every expense for the past two and a half years, and found about $850 in transactions with insufficient documentation. Whether that’s a matter of theft or mere sloppiness, Anderson’s review seems to rule out additional large-scale embezzlements. (He did admit, however, that there was no way to retroactively vet requests for mileage reimbursements.)

Anderson also took full responsibility for the matter. “I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish I’d caught it sooner,” he told the state committee.

In the process of being as transparent as possible, Anderson revealed a couple of disturbing facts about party administration.

First, Anderson said, Batham was able to cut himself checks without oversight or review because, somehow, Batham had become “the only person with access to our bank information.”

Yeah, that’s kind of a setup for embezzlement.

Second, Anderson acknowledged that the VDP’s staff hiring process was… well… not a process at all. “We have a history in this party of hiring people with no process,” he said. “No interview, no checking of references.”

Yeah, that’s kind of a setup for hiring embezzlers. Anderson promised that things had changed.

This level of mismanagement should be embarrassing at least — and perhaps disqualifying — for those who exercised authority during this time. But most state committee members were in a forgiving mood. Many praised the hard work of party officials and applauded the new reforms. A couple of members blamed the media for publicizing the case — which, c’mon, folks. If embezzlement strikes a prominent Vermont organization, then reporters are gonna report.

Honestly, if the party was this badly managed and organized, Democrats ought to be thanking the media for shining some light in the dark corners instead of thanking leadership for having the decency to clean up its own messes.

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Welcome to Vermont, Mr. McNeil

Oh boy, there’s more bad news from the Vermont Democratic Party. The latest from Team Turmoil is an official notice from the Federal Election Commission informing the VDP that it has yet to file its required monthly financial report for July, and warning of serious consequences.

The failure to timely file a complete report may result in civil money penalties, an audit or legal enforcement action. The civil money penalty calculation for late reports does not include a grace period and begins on the day following the due date for the report.

The July report was due August 20, so the fines have been piling up, potentially, since August 21. (The fines are assessed, or not, on a case-by-case basis. There’s no set dollar amount.) And the August report is due on September 20. If it doesn’t go in on time, the daily fines could double.

These filings are a royal pain (says anyone who’s had to prepare them), but are a necessary function for a political party. Failure to file is, well, a violation of federal law.

Party spokesperson R. Christopher DiMezzo offers words of assurance. “The FEC knows about the situation,’ he said. “We’re in contact.”

The delay in filing, he explained, is entirely due to alleged embezzlements by former staffer Brandon Batham, which is under investigation by Montpelier police. “The filing is held up because of the law enforcement investigation,” he said. “The report will go in when we figure out how to handle it.”

Well, maybe, but my bullshit detector is pinging. The party could always submit a report and revise it later if necessary. Happens all the time. Plus, does the financial filing really depend on the police investigation? We already know how much money is involved, don’t we?

Don’t we?

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Windham Dems Quickly Dispose of Hot Potato

At a meeting Monday, the Windham County Democratic Committee disposed of a resolution calling for new leadership in the state party. Instead, the panel approved the drafting of a letter expressing concern over an alleged embezzlement of party funds and appreciation for actions taken by party leaders to prevent any recurrence.

The resolution was drafted by county party chair John Hagen after consultation with other officers in the organization. The meeting was attended by 23 party members, including almost every Democratic lawmaker from Windham County. If there had been any momentum in favor of the resolution, the air exited the balloon when Hagen told the meeting that, about an hour before the meeting began, he had received an email from state party chair Terje Anderson providing a full history of the embezzlement case and outlining new steps the party was taking in response. In the email, Hagen said, Anderson “addresses every part of the resolution.”

Nice timing, that. If Anderson sought to influence the proceedings with a last-ditch plea, it’s fair to say he succeeded.

The resolution was in response to alleged embezzlement of more than $18,000 in state party funds by former staffer Brandon Batham. (The Vermont Democratic Party has requested a criminal investigation by the Montpelier Police Department, and is conducting an audit going back three years to be sure that no more irregularities are hiding in the weeds.) It called for a new slate of state party officers to be presented at the party’s reorganization meeting on November 16, citing concerns about management oversight and the scandal’s potential effect on fundraising.

No one spoke in favor of the resolution, although several attendees had been involved in creating it. Most were mollified by Anderson’s late email — even though they had yet to actually see it.

“I wasn’t expecting the resolution to pass,” said Hagen after the meeting. “The intent was to throw a rock in the water and see what came up to the surface.”

That rock produced a tidal wave of retreat from the resolution. The most vociferous opponent was Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who characterized party leaders as “a bunch of volunteers doing the best they can,” she said. “In my mind, they have revised and updated their procedures. This resolution just fuels the flames.” She advocated putting the affair behind them and turning the party’s attention on the 2020 election campaign.

Committee member Andy Burrows of Guilford noted that before Batham was hired on party staff, he had been chair of the Windham Democrats — and had not performed well. “We worked with him for a long time,” Burrows said. “He was a shifty sort of guy. We should ;have said Batham was not appropriate for the party job.”

Afterward, Burrows elaborated on his statement, noting that he questioned Batham’s work ethic, not his probity. “He volunteered for many tasks, but he did very little,” Burrows said of Batham. “We wouldn’t have recommended him. And [the party] didn’t ask.”

Which ought to raise questions about the thoroughness of the Vermont Democratic Party’s hiring process in addition to its financial oversight. But I digress.

2016 gubernatorial candidate Brenda Siegel spoke against the resolution. “When embezzlement happens, it’s not always the fault of leadership,” she said. Rather than suggesting a new slate, she advised allowing the reorganization process to play out.

Several committee members expressed a desire to meet with Anderson directly before considering the resolution. Rep. Mike Mrowicki (D-Putney) moved to table the resolution. “We’re nowhere near consensus,” he said.

White even objected to tabling; she wanted the county committee to immediately drop the matter. “We should send a nice letter saying we appreciate the work being done on new procedures,” White said. She added that “We shouldn’t judge Brandon. I don’t know what’s going on with him. I don’t think he’s a bad guy.”

Of course, the resolution didn’t judge Batham at all; it focused on the potential failings of responsible leaders. But whatever.

“We should send a thoughtful letter stating that we’re glad to hear they’re working on new procedures, and asking them to come down and talk to us about it,” said Burrows.

White objected to that as well, saying she didn’t want to take the time for more talk. “We should thank [leadership] for taking this seriously, and let the reorganization process go ahead,” White said.

At that point, committee members deferred to White. Her resolution, calling for a thankful letter and nothing more, was approved on a unanimous voice vote.

Members of the Windham County committee clearly felt uncomfortable expressing any real questions about party leadership, especially on the eve of the 2020 election season. But this is probably not the end of Anderson’s troubles. Many committee members expect robust debate at the VDP’s state committee meeting on September 21. Hagen noted that he had talked with other county chairs, and found that many were still actively concerned about the Batham case and its effect on fundraising.

And even in the absence of an actual call for change in leadership, the incumbent officeholders are likely to face sharp questions — at the very least — at the reorganization meeting on November 16.

 

Do the Democrats want to beat Phil Scott?

Stupid question, right?

Ask any Democrat — well, almost any Democrat — and they’ll say of course they want to beat Phil Scott and put one of their own in the corner office.

But I’m not asking any of them.

Instead, I’m looking at their collective actions. And they tell a different story, one full of abject failure to mount competitive races, of convenient excuses for legislative inaction, of top-tier contenders avoiding a tough challenge.

Conventional wisdom says that Scott is a singularly popular Republican thanks to his plain ol’ working-man demeanor and his plausibly moderate stands on the issues. I mean, look: He’s never lost in his 20-year political career. That includes campaigns for state Senate, lieutenant governor and governor. Impressive.

But who has he beaten? How many difficult races has he had to run? How many times did he amble his way to victory?

Short answer: He’s had it about as easy as a politician could hope for.

Scott first ran for Senate in 2000, the year of the great conservative backlash over civil unions for same-sex couples. He secured one of Washington County’s three seats in a race that nearly produced a Republican sweep of the county. (Incumbent Democrat Ann Cummings barely edged out fourth-place Republican Paul Giuliani.)

After that, Scott’s fortunes were buoyed by the super-strong incumbent’s edge in state Senate races. He finished a strong third in 2002. 2004 was the closest call of his entire political career; he won the third seat by a margin of only 230 votes. 2006 and 2008 were easy wins for all three incumbents — Scott, Cummings, and the redoubtable Bill Doyle.

As a reasonably inoffensive Republican, Scott benefited from the good will of Democratic leadership. He served as vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and chair of  Senate Institutions, burnishing his reputation for working across the aisle.

In 2010, Scott ran for lieutenant governor and won, beating then-state representative Steve Howard by 49-42 percent.  That was the closest call he’s had in this entire decade.

As LG, Scott’s reputation for bipartisanship was given a boost by then-governor Peter Shumlin, who included Scott in his cabinet. Not the kind of move you make if you really wanted a fellow Democrat to take Scott’s place.

Unsurprisingly, the potential A-List or B-List candidates for Lite-Gov kept their distance, allowing relative unknowns Cassandra Gekas (2012) and Dean Corren (2014) to mount the altar as sacrificial lambs. Scott beat Gekas by 17 points and Corren by an astounding 26.

And that set the stage for Scott’s elevation to governor in 2016. His Democratic opponent Sue Minter was a former state representative and cabinet official, but she’d never run for statewide office and was little known outside of Montpelier and Waterbury. She lost by nine points. In 2018, the top tier of Democrats was nowhere to be seen; former utility executive Christine Hallquist made history by becoming the first openly transgender person to win a major party’s gubernatorial nomination, but she had no chance in November. Scott sailed to a 15-point victory.

Now, you tell me. Who’s more responsible for the remarkable political career of Phil Scott? The man himself — or the Democratic Party that has consistently failed to seriously challenge him, and the Democratic officeholders who’ve consistently given him a hand up?

That also goes for top Democrats who are more than happy to make public appearances with Scott, even during his 2018 re-election campaign. The governor could fill a thousand campaign brochures with photos of himself making nice with Democratic officeholders, from the legislature to statewide officials to members of our congressional delegation.

I know, we’re all proud of Vermont’s tradition of political comity. But at some point, don’t you have to be just a little bit partisan?

Now, let’s look at the Democrat-dominated legislature, where Scott provides a convenient excuse for not getting stuff done. Over and over again in the past three years, the Dems have failed to advance key bills because of the potential for a gubernatorial veto. Just as often, they’ve ended up negotiating against themselves — weakening legislation in hopes of winning the governor’s approval.

Y’know, if they had a progressive-minded Democratic governor, they’d have to actually try to craft effective legislation. This didn’t work out too well with Shumlin’s health care reform push, did it? Much safer to flail helplessly in the face of a Republican governor.

They’ve also reached a comfy non-confrontational position on taxes and spending. There was little dispute over the 2020 budget. There is no real effort to challenge Scott on taxes. VTGOP press releases will tell a different story, chronicling every tax or fee increase proposed by every single Dem or Progressive lawmaker — even though the vast majority were dead on arrival.

During the 2019 session, the Dems undermined much of their own agenda. They spent week after week trying to come up with weaker and weaker versions of key bills. In some cases, that effort prevented bills from gaining legislative approval at all. Scott didn’t have to veto a minimum wage increase, a paid family leave program or a commercial marketplace for cannabis — three high priority issues for the Dems. They also failed to confront the governor on other contentious issues, including legalization of personal possession of buprenorphine. They disappointed their liberal base by failing to seriously address climate change.

Point being, the fear of a veto was powerful juju, turning the Dem/Prog supermajority into so many zombies. And leaving potential 2020 gubernatorial candidates with precious little material to run on. For the sake of anyone willing to challenge Scott, the legislature had better come prepared next January to hold the governor’s feet to the fire. Force him to make difficult choices. Show that there’s a real difference between the Democrats and the Republican governor.

Or, well, just sit back, relax, let some schmo lose to Scott by double digits, and get back to the established routine of shadowboxing the big bad governor.

The Dems Come Clean, Sort Of

On Sunday afternoon, the Vermont Democratic Party issued a thorough and putatively transparent explanation for the Brandon Batham case. Unfortunately, it raises quite a few questions — and its effort to exculpate party leadership rings a bit hollow.

Batham is the former party staffer who resigned suddenly last month. A couple of weeks later, the VDP issued a press release stating that Batham had embezzled close to $3,000 in party funds. But toward the end of last week, I learned that the actual amount was much larger — although I was unable to find out how much. Lips were tightly zippered, and information was closely held by a handful of top officials. Not even the party’s executive committee was informed.

So I wrote what I knew on Friday. Less than 48 hours later, the party issued a press release stating the Batham had taken an additional $15,629 — bringing the total to roughly $18,500. The embezzlements took place between January and June of this year. The statement acknowledged that the total could go even higher, as a third-party audit of the VDP’s books is underway.

Well, that’s comforting. How bad is the bookkeeping system anyway?

The party explained that the original $2,931 was skimmed from party funds, and the remaining $15K-plus was taken by Batham by way of the payroll system. He gave himself an “unauthorized raise,” and also issued “unauthorized additional paychecks and ‘bonuses’ between official pay-periods” to himself.

Which, as the party itself states, he shouldn’t have been able to do. Batham, the release states, “did not have signing powers on the party accounts.”

Who did?

From January through April, it was then-executive director Josh Massey — who goes unnamed in the party’s release. After Massey’s departure, party leaders chose not to name an interim E.D. Instead, party chair Terje Anderson took on many of the duties. As did Brandon Batham, heh.

According to a fact sheet accompanying the press release, Anderson and party treasurer Billi Gosh repeatedly tried to get answers from Batham. They failed to do so.

For more than two months. 

Either Batham is a master of deception, or Anderson and Gosh didn’t try hard enough.

Anderson uncovered the non-payroll takings in early July. He shared his findings with precisely two other people — treasurer Gosh and party vice-chair Tess Taylor. “Documentation was carefully gathered,” says the fact sheet in its characteristic passive construction, and on July 17 Anderson, Taylor and the VDP’s attorney confronted Batham with evidence of the $2,931. At this point the payroll fraud hadn’t been detected — not, if you believe the VDP’s statement, due to any dereliction on the part of Anderson or Gosh, but because of Batham’s deft deployment of Jedi mind tricks.

Batham resigned rather than being fired, but the information was kept close to the vest by party leaders.

The payroll theft was discovered near the end of July, when Anderson was finally “able to access the payroll accounts.” Apparently Batham left the books well-hidden? Finally, on August 8 the matter was referred to police, who supposedly asked party leaders to keep it quiet.

That’s the explanation offered for the complete lack of disclosure until Sunday — two days after I spilled the beans.

The fact sheet says that the party has already reformed its system for cutting checks and documenting expenses. In other news, the barn door has been locked after the horse was stolen.

The party also issued a “Memo to the Vermont Democratic Community,” which is copy-and-pasted below. I’ll note a couple of key passages.

After a brief statement of fact, the memo says, “We will be doing everything possible to move beyond this very discouraging set of circumstances and to regain or retain your trust. We will do so in a spirit of humility and honesty.”

OK, well, good luck with that. You’re going to have a hard time convincing folks of your “honesty” when you kept all this information secret until you were essentially forced to reveal it. I’m sure the police asked you to keep it quiet — but did you feel a countervailing obligation to the people’s trust? Perhaps you had a higher duty than to accommodate the police?

The memo closes with a plea to move beyond this scandal because it “cannot distract from the pressing work that lies ahead” — the 2020 election, etc.

Good luck with that, too. Especially if party leaders continue to hew to the line that everyone other than Batham (and perhaps the unnamed Massey) is completely blameless, did their best at all times, and should not face any sort of sanction or, perish forbid, removal from their positions of trust.

Is the party’s executive committee likely to be so forgiving? Or the larger state committee, which includes multiple representatives of each county?

If not, then we’re likely to see some consequences. For starters, new leadership may be needed to restore trust in time for the 2020 campaign. After all, the VDP has had major fundraising troubles for the past three-plus years. Now it’s facing a significant financial scandal that raises questions about oversight of party spending. The party has just given every potential supporter one more big fat reason to say “no” when the VDP comes calling.

 

Memo to the Vermont Democratic Community

FROM: Terje Anderson, Party Chair; Tess Taylor, Party Vice Chair; Billi Gosh, Party Treasurer

TO: The Vermont Democratic Community

On August 8, 2019, the Vermont Democratic Party filed a formal criminal complaint against Brandon Batham, former Director of Party Operations, for misuse and embezzlement of party funds.

The report alleges Mr. Batham, over the course of calendar year 2019 until his departure from the Party in July, embezzled, fraudulently obtained, or misused approximately $18,500 through various means, including payroll fraud. While these numbers are accurate to the best of our current knowledge, we may not know the total amount stolen until the close of a complete and thorough third-party audit.

This is, certainly, a difficult and painful time for the Party. We believe that an absolutely essential part of addressing the situation is a full and transparent explanation of what happened, and what comes next, to our supporters, donors, and friends. To that end, we hope the attached fact sheet will begin to address your possible questions and concerns.

We will be doing everything possible to move beyond this very discouraging set of circumstances and to regain or retain your trust. We will do so in a spirit of humility and honesty,

But we also want to make sure you know that this cannot distract from the pressing work that lies ahead — the essential business of electing a new President and a new Governor in 2020, electing Democrats at every level, and the urgent need to stand up for the interests of the people of Vermont, the United States and the world. We cannot lose sight of the urgency of that mission.

 

 

 

Trouble Brewing for VT Dems

Hey, how ya doin’? I’m back at the old popstand after two and a half years of professional journalism and/or whoredom, depending on your POV. There will be more to say about all of this, but right now I’ve got some news to break.

Two weeks ago, my old colleague Paul Heintz at Seven Days reported that Vermont Democratic Party staffer Brandon Batham had resigned suddenly over allegations that he had embezzled slightly less than $3,000 in party funds.

Well, from what I’ve heard, the amount in question is actually much higher than that, and the case is likely to break wide open very soon.

Batham’s departure has roiled the waters in Demville. According to multiple sources familiar with the event, party leaders held an emergency meeting of the VDP’s executive committee earlier this week. Attendees were sworn to silence. The entire meeting took place in executive session, closed to outsiders. The meeting was brief, and little concrete information was on offer. The subject of the meeting appears to have been fresh developments regarding Batham’s embezzlement.

If the amount embezzled was higher than earlier reported, Batham may be in hotter water legally. But even more pertinent for the organization and Vermont politics, the case will cast a longer, deeper shadow over party leadership. I mean, $3,000 might be written off as carelessness. But if it’s, say, $20,000? That begins to look like dereliction of duty for people like party chair Terje Anderson, former executive director Josh Massey and party treasurer Billi Gosh.

After all, the party isn’t exactly swimming in cash. As I recently reported, the VDP is still struggling to overcome a 2017 financial crisis that involved missed or delayed payrolls for party staff. Fundraising efforts were either nonexistent or not working.  The party has avoided actual red ink since then, but its finances remain in rebuild mode. This year, in fact, it’s been been heavily dependent on generous giving from the Democratic National Committee and some of its leading donors — to the tune of over $100,000. That’s uncomfortably close to half of the party’s overall takings for the first half of 2019.

If financial oversight has been lax enough to permit embezzlement on a significant scale, the repercussions are likely to be swift and severe. There’s also the question of how party leaders put this story out there when they apparently had yet to figure out the scope of the problem. That speaks to incompetence, carelessness or both. We may well see some notable resignations — triggering another round of the instability that’s hamstrung the VDP since the tail end of the Shumlin era.

It’s not a great way to ramp up to the 2020 campaign season, that’s for sure.

 

 

The Chittenden Trap

One of the top items on the Vermont Democratic Party’s to-do list is a makeover of its relationship with the Progressive Party. Nothing drastic, just some overdue maintenance. The core issue: how to deal with Progs running as Dems — and, in some cases, running as Dems and then re-entering the fray as Progs after losing a Democratic primary.

But I would argue that another issue might be more urgent: the party’s increasingly Chittenden-centric orientation.

Writing this post was in the works before today’s news that Rep. Mitzi Johnson has edged out Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas to be the next Speaker of the House. Now, it seems even more pertinent. The leaders of both houses will come from Chittenden County’s sphere of influence: Johnson from South Hero (basically a bedroom community for Burlington), Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe from Chittenden County. And the three members of the Senate’s Committee on Committees all being from Chittenden.

When I say “Chittenden County,” I define it broadly; from the southern half of the Champlain Islands down to Shelburne at least, and southwestward to Richmond if not Waterbury.

Chittenden County itself accounts for one-fourth of Vermont’s population. Its Senate delegation is twice as large as the next biggest county — and in fact, based purely on population, it ought to have one more Senator. (And will certainly get at least one more after the 2020 Census.)

Beyond the mere numbers, Chittenden is home turf for the Democratic Party’s urban-ish, tech-oriented core. And its donor base.

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