Category Archives: Vermont Democratic Party

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.

 

 

 

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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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Do campaigns matter anymore?

On the national level and in Vermont, the Democratic Party had the vastly superior organization. They were solidly networked from grassroots to leadership. They had more paid staff, more field offices, bigger phone banks, more robust GOTV efforts.

Now that it’s all over, those seemingly bulletproof advantages didn’t make a damn bit of difference.

Here in Vermont, as I wrote (and VTDigger’s Jon Margolis sees it the same way), you might as well have had no campaign whatsoever. If we’d had the election a year ago, Phil Scott would have beaten Democrat X by five to ten percentage points on the basis of (a) his popularity and name recognition, and (b) the unpopularity of Governor Shumlin.

And after a campaign of unprecedented length and expense, Phil Scott won by eight percent. Big whoop.

Elsewhere, the 2016 election shuffled some names, but the political landscape remains virtually unchanged. The Dems continue to hold the non-Phil Scott statewide offices and the Legislature’s partisan balance barely moved. For all of Scott’s assertions to the contrary, this was no mandate for his agenda — it was a mandate for him personally. The Republican platform got precisely nowhere except for his candidacy.

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A tale of two parties

For the third weekend in a row, Vermont’s top Democrats are touring the state, rallying their voters and presenting a unified front behind Sue Minter. Pat Leahy, Peter Welch, David Zuckerman, TJ Donovan, Doug Hoffer, Beth Pearce, and Jim Condos have done more than their share to help carry Minter across the finish line.

And most crucially, Bernie Sanders, who not only spent two weekends on the stump with Minter*, he gave her a tremendous infusion of campaign cash thanks to his millions of supporters across the country. It really has been a great display of unity — far beyond anything I’d hoped for when I advocated a one-weekend Bus Tour. It’s also an impressive show of the Democrats’ political star power, the depth of their talent and the breadth of their appeal.

*This weekend, he’s campaigning for Hillary Clinton in other states. 

Meanwhile, on the other side, we’ve got Phil Scott. And, um…

Phil Scott.

Bravely soldiering on, pretty much carrying the entire VTGOP on his broad, manly shoulders. Or trying to.

Really, who else is there? What other Vermont Republican might hope to draw a crowd or inspire the voters?

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Two bites of the apple

The Progressive Party doesn’t have much of a ticket this year. Many of its candidates are running as Democrats because they stand a better chance of winning. Smart tactics in the short term, and something of a worry for Dems. They’re seeing previously “safe” seats peeled off by the Progs, potentially weakening their legislative caucuses.

This year, we have a new twist on that technique: Progressives running as Democrats, losing the primary, and then refiling as Progs for the same contest.

There are four such candidates (that I know of), all running for the House, and all in “safe” Democratic districts. The Two-Biters:

— Jill Charbonneau, Addison-1

— Steve May, Chittenden-1

— Marci Young, Lamoille-Washington

— Carl Etnier, Washington-5

This is of direct interest to me, because I live in one of those districts.

Each person must make up their own mind. Me personally, I’m disinclined to vote for a Two-Biter.

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Get on the bus

I have this crazy notion.

I see a luxury bus, decked out with signs and photos of the Democrats’ statewide candidates. I see it spending a long weekend barnstorming around Vermont, stopping in various towns and cities.

Inside the bus, I see Sue Minter, Pat Leahy, Peter Welch, and Bernie Sanders, plus David Zuckerman, TJ Donovan, Jim Condos, Beth Pearce, and Doug Hoffer*. Legislative candidates join them for rallies held within their districts.

*Random order. Please take no offense, Doug.  

The events draw substantial media coverage and energize the party faithful. They showcase liberal politicians united behind a single ticket — and, most crucially, a gubernatorial candidate in an uphill battle against a popular Republican.

What would it do for Sue Minter to have Vermont’s very popular heavyweights actively showing their support? It might just be the thing to put her over the top.

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