Tag Archives: Agency of Commerce and Community Development

The definition of insanity

Doug Hoffer is at it again, pissing in the cornflakes of conventional wisdom. His latest report offers a detailed picture of something we already knew: The value of Vermont’s Remote Worker Grant Program is essentially unquantifiable.

The program offers up to $10,000 to people who relocate to Vermont and work remotely for employers elsewhere. It has generated a ton of publicity and very little in the way of actual returns. Scott administration apparatchiks boast of attracting new residents — a grand total of, um, 110 grantees and 290 new residents.

To quote my favorite comics character, Big Nate: “Whoop-de-dang-do.” That’s basically a rounding error in Vermont’s demographics.

There are other problems with the program’s performance, in addition to the paltry numbers. Almost half the grantees have settled in Chittenden County, which doesn’t need the boost. And the Commerce Agency’s own figures shows that most grantees would have moved here anyway. At best, the grant was only one factor in their decisions, and there’s no way to tell how many of those new residents would have decided against Vermont if the program didn’t exist.

Hoffer also points to the deliberately lax standards for awarding grants, established by the legislature on the principle of “keep it simple and get the money out the door.”

See, we must expect rigorous documentation and enforcement in social service programs, but Heaven forbid we should bother well-educated, white-collar recipients of economic development initiatives. Or businesses that draw on incentives for job training or expansion.

Because pretty much all of Commerce’s highly-touted programs are basically emperors with no clothes. Or, as Hoffer put it, “there is little reliable performance data about some of the State’s largest economic development programs.”

He closes the introduction to his new report with the destined-to-be-ignored clarion call: “When considering funding for Vermont’s economic development programs, we strongly encourage decision makers to take an evidence-based approach.”

Yeah, right. When pigs fly.

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Plagiarism is the least significant problem with ACCD report

Ouch, this is embarrassing:

In a report submitted last week to the Vermont legislature, the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development appears to have plagiarized three news stories and used photographs without permission.

Since we’re discussing plagiarism here, let me first disclose that the previous paragraph was written by Seven Days’ Paul Heintz.

The ACCD report was a review of the remote worker grant program — known in the vernacular as the $10,000 giveaway. It offers up to $10,000 to people who relocate to Vermont and work remotely for out-of-state employers. The plagiarized material profiled three recipients waxing poetic about their new lives in Vermont. Large swaths of text were lifted from reporting by Seven Days, CNBC and CNN. It also used photos taken by ace freelance photographer Jeb Wallace-Brodeur without attribution or payment. Which is how a freelancer makes a living, don’t ya know. (Note: ACCD has updated the online version of the report, giving proper credit to the media outlets.)

This is a bad look and an embarrassment for ACCD. And Commissioner Joan Goldstein did herself no favor by labeling the plagiarism as an unintentional “oversight.” (I mean, c’mon, whoever put together the report had to know where the material came from. Someone clearly, knowingly, took an ethical shortcut.)

But in the focus on plagiarism we shouldn’t overlook the meat of the report, which does little to demonstrate the value of the program. Instead, it highlights the program’s inherent flaws.

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Want more development? Elect Phil Scott

There’s been a lot of talk about the tax incentives and budgetary targets in Phil Scott’s newly released economic plan. There’s been less coverage of parts of the plan that might actually have the greatest impact: a strongly pro-business orientation in how state government operates.

Regarding tax changes and budget cuts, Scott would have to work with large — possibly veto-proof — Democratic majorities in the Legislature. But a lot of the pro-business orientation is a matter of executive authority. “Governor Scott” could do a lot to make his administration business-friendly without any legislative input.

And let there be no doubt: Phil Scott would be a very business-friendly Governor. So much so, that it calls into question his image of political moderation.

There’s one item that leaped off the page when I was reading his economic plan. He foresees a dramatic re-orientation in the Act 250 permitting process. First, he would establish a 90-day time limit for major permitting applications, and a four-week limit for “minor licensing and permitting.”

I don’t know how he plans to enforce the time limits. And given his vagueness in other areas, I imagine he doesn’t know either.

And then there’s the second thing, which could be even bigger. He wants “Act 250 permit specialsts to serve as pro-growth guides.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

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Pat Moulton has a great idea.

Commerce Secretary Patricia Moulton was far too busy to comment on the sudden, unexplained departure of Gene Fullam as head of Vermont’s EB-5 office, but she did manage to make time for a live interview on Thursday’s “Vermont Edition.” Subject: EB-5.

Inexplicably, host Jane Lindholm didn’t ask about Fullam’s departure. A deal, perhaps?

UPDATE 7/23: Got this Tweet from Lindholm:

Immediately preceding Moulton was State Auditor Doug Hoffer, who’s been critical of the grant programs administered by her agency. Among other things, he pointed out that it’s impossible to prove whether the state grants actually create economic activity that wouldn’t exist in their absence.

And then Moulton came on and admitted that those programs operate on the honor system. Regarding the Vermont Economic Growth Initiative, she said:

… we believe the CEOs, when they sign an application, that the material is true and correct.

Aww. Isn’t that sweet. “We believe the CEOs.”

Because a CEO would never lie to us.

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The limits of credulity

Okay, so after less than one year on the job, the director of Vermont’s embattled EB-5 program has resigned. And nobody is saying boo about it. No explanation, no praise for the departed, just No Comment across the board.

Nothing to see here, folks. Move it along.

Well, sorry, but if there’s one area of state government where That Dog Won’t Hunt, it’s the scandal-plagued EB-5 program.

Plus, we’re not talking about some schmo plucked from bureaucratic obscurity to caretake EB-5 through the fag end of the Shumlin administration. When he was hired in August 2015, Gene Fullam appeared to be the idea candidate.

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Jobs for the Boys (and Girls)

Patricia Moulton just became the latest high-ranking rat to leave the Good Ship Shumlin. The Commerce Secretary, under whose watch the EB-5 scandal went on undetected for years, has herself a soft landing spot as interim president of Vermont Technical College.

Moulton is one of those seemingly unmovable fixtures of Montpelier life — a species that moves effortlessly between government, private sector, and government-related nonprofits. She’s served in the last two administrations, Douglas and Shumlin; and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she turned up in a hypothetical Phil Scott cabinet.

What are her credentials to lead an educational institution? Pish tosh. Who needs relevant experience when you’re one of the cross-partisan In Crowd?

“… I can bring to that institution great knowledge about education and workforce for the state of Vermont,” Moulton said in an interview Thursday.

Well, that’s one way to spin it.

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Dept. of Unwarranted Hubris, EB-5 Division

I don’t know what it would take for Patricia Moulton to realize that the jig is up, that business as usual in the EB-5 program simply won’t cut it anymore. But clearly, a major scandal isn’t enough.

The chief of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development put in an eppearance Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee, where she steadfastly refused to acknowledge that there was anything wrong with Vermont’s EB-5 program. According to VTDigger, one lawmaker characterized her testimony as “unrepentant.” And Sen. Kevin Mullin, not exactly an outside-the-box thinker, said Moulton “kind of scared me today because she was so much of a cheerleader.”

Okay, let’s look at the record. Moulton, following in the footsteps of her predecessor Lawrence Miller and his predecessors in the Douglas Administration, allowed horribly lax oversight of EB-5 projects, thus enabling the (cough, allegedly) fraudulent Jay Peak scheme to proceed for most of a decade. The last two people in charge of overseeing EB-5 left the agency to take jobs with EB-5 developers. The Shumlin administration, belatedly, realized that ACCD was failing to do the job and transferred regulatory oversight to the Department of Financial Regulation.

After all that, the feds raid Jay Peak, haul off the records and computers and change the locks, and issue a massive indictment of Bill Stenger, Ariel Quiros and company, which is a tacit indictment of Vermont’s dereliction of duty.

And now comes Patricia Moulton saying “as secretary of ACCD, my job, absolutely, is to be a cheerleader for the [EB-5] regional center.”

Amazing. How tone-deaf can you be?

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Shoot the Messenger

As its final months drag onward, the Shumlin administration is remaining true to one of its core principles: Shoot the messenger. We have two prime examples of this time-tested strategery today: a top state official slams a respected media outlet, a move that has backfired big-time in the past; and the administration puts a big fat price tag on transparency.

First, Lawrence Miller, Vermont Health Connect czar, has beef with VTDigger.

[Miller] testified Wednesday in the House and challenged the veracity of a VTDigger story that said the state has been unhappy with its current Vermont Health Connect contractor and is negotiating with another company.

… [Miller said] that any frustration he expressed in emails was a normal part of negotiations.

Digger’s earlier story had quoted emails from a state official expressing dissatisfaction with VHC contractor Optum. Which would be noteworthy, since Optum was supposedly the savior of Vermont Health Connect. Miller pooh-poohed the story’s assertion, saying that a certain amount of “friction” is a normal part of the process.

Maybe that’s true, but here’s the problem. This is the same “Lawrence Miller” who was in charge of the Agency for Commerce and Community Development when it was happily attempting to both promote and regulate the ill-fated EB-5 program. He headed ACCD from 2011 to 2014, when he was tasked with cleaning up the Vermont Health Connect mess.

In other words, Miller has been hip-deep in two of the Shumlin administration’s signature disasters. Is it possible he negotiated Shumlin’s original land deal with jerry Dodge?

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The hottest potato in Vermont

Our political elites are still involved in the unedifying spectacle of desperately trying to create distance between themselves and a former best buddy. Unedifying, and beggaring belief.

The best bud, of course, is alleged EB-5 scamster Bill Stenger, who still denies  — also beggaring belief — that he knew nothing about the misuse of $200 million in investor funds, and that it was all the dark-skinned flatlander’s fault. Pretty much everyone in Vermont politics has cozied up to Stenger in the past, and anyone in a position to bestow favors did so on a regular basis. Democrats, Republicans, even Bernie. (Who has thoroughly ducked the issue, his endless narrative about the evils of corporate influence notwithstanding.)

At the head of the “run away from Bill” parade is none other than our esteemed Governor, Peter Shumlin. One of his worst attributes as a leader is his extreme reluctance to admit he screwed up, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. And that makes his frantic positioning in this case all the more incredible; you can almost hear him claiming that Vermont’s handling of Stenger was a “nothing-burger.”

Yeah, that phrase will be on his political headstone, and it’s largely his own fault. He’d be better off just acknowledging unpleasant realities and accepting responsibility. Because as the state’s chief executive, he is uniquely responsible.

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A little bit slow and a fair bit lacking

This whole Stengerville fiasco presents a quandary for the three Democratic candidates for governor. On the one hand, it’s the biggest political scandal in years, ensnaring most of the state’s power elite in its icky-sticky web. You’ve gotta say something. On the other hand, well, it blew up on Governor Shumlin’s watch, and you’ve got to draw a careful line when criticizing your own party’s incumbent.

I guess that explains why it took Matt Dunne, Sue Minter, and Peter Galbraith a solid four days to issue any sort of response. And why, in the interim, the candidates’ press-release operations carried on as if nothing had happened.

There was Sue Minter on Thursday, holding a doomed-to-obscurity presser on “an aggressive plan” to address water quality issues from PFOA to Lake Champlain and beyond. A really nimble campaign might have taken notice of the Wednesday night SEC raid on Stengerville and postponed the event, but maybe that’s asking too much.

Matt Dunne did no better; on Friday he disclosed his personal financial information, as if anybody cared at that particular point. It may be unfair to conclude that the release was a double-barreled newsdump: it came on a Friday when everybody’s attention was focused elsewhere. Yes, it may be unfair, but these are cynical days.

As for Peter Galbraith, that rarest of phenomena: the sound of silence.

Finally, on Monday, all three came out with a gun or two a-blazing, but none have fully addressed the issues raised by this scandal — our scattershot approach to helping specific businesses and the lack of transparency and accountability in the process.

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