Tag Archives: Andy Pallito

Plausible deniability and the $10,000 envelope

Kudos to Seven Days’ Paul Heintz for a good old-fashioned piece of outrage journalism, a nearly lost art in these days of objectivity fetishism. The object of his scorn: the woefully incomplete “investigation” of Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s demostrably squicky campaign finance shenanigans. (In the interest of self-promotion, here’s a link to my take on the story.)

The whole column is strongly recommended, but I want to highlight one passage — and then It’s Story Time, Kids!

To set this up: In December 2013, Sorrell had dinner with a couple of high-powered lawyers, Mike Messina and Patricia Madrid, who had previously donated to his campaign fund. Take it away, Paul:

“Just before sitting down to dinner, Mike gave me an envelope saying that he and the attorneys from the Texas firm [Baron & Budd] wished to contribute to my campaign for reelection,” Sorrell wrote in the affidavit, which has not been previously disclosed. “I thanked them and accepted the envelope.”

Tucked inside were five checks totaling $10,000 for Sorrell’s reelection campaign.

During the dinner, Sorrell wrote, Messina and his friends “suggested they would come to Vermont at a future date to discuss the possibility of Vermont suing the oil and gas industry, if I was interested.” Baron & Budd has made millions for itself — and the states and municipalities it has represented — by suing the industry over its use of the gasoline additive MTBE.

After Messina handed Sorrell the checks, his clients handed the AG “a folder or manila envelope” containing information about Baron & Budd and a memo touching on “the specifics of relevant Vermont law.” Sorrell trucked it back to his office, gave it to an assistant attorney general and asked him to check with the Agency of Natural Resources to “discuss the possibility” of suing.

Within months, Sorrell’s office had filed suit and hired four firms — including Baron & Budd and Messina — to serve as outside counsel, guaranteeing them a percentage of any money recouped.

The “affidavit” referenced above is a sworn statement provided by Sorrell to independent investigator Tom Little.

Sorrell’s attorney argues that this does “not equate to a quid pro quo arrangement.” Which is downright laughable. But as Heintz notes, Sorrell “practically admitted to the crime” of trading state contracts for political donations.

And now, It’s Story Time.

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Q: How do you gain access to Vermont’s for-profit prison? A: You don’t.

Update: For those finding this post afresh, please also read the following entry, which includes the response from the Department of Corrections. 

Here’s a little goodie from Vermont’s Best Newspaper (Out Of State Division), the Valley News. Columnist Jim Kenyon has a problem with the whole concept of for-profit prisons…

The mere concept of for-profit prisons defies logic. [The operator] only gets paid when its prison beds are occupied. It’s not in the financial interests of the company — or its shareholders — to work toward keeping people out of prison.

… what elected officials don’t talk about much is the toll that being so far away from home can have on inmates, their families and their future. Elected officials also gloss over the reasons why GEO and other for-profit prison companies are less costly.

(Kenyon’s essay is behind a semi-permeable paywall. If you sign up for the Valley News email list, you can read up to five articles per month for free.)

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Can’t we find a Democratic budget expert? Please?

The Shumlin administration is a lame-duck affair. Top staffers have begun to leave, and it’s awfully difficult to hire outsiders for openings that will only last a little more than a year. So, people get promoted from within or shuffled around. I imagine by next summer, the administration will look like a last-place baseball team in mid-September: plenty of scrubs trying to act like major leaguers.

The latest departure: budget chief Jim Reardon. His replacement: prison chief Andy Pallito.

Okay, fine, maybe Pallito is the best person for the job. But he, like Reardon, was a prominent holdover from the Douglas administration. Which brings us to the question above: Can’t we find a Democratic budget expert? Please?

This is of a piece with Democrats relying on Neale Lunderville as their number-one fixit man. Hirings like these reinforce the stereotype that Republicans are serious administrators while Democrats are softies. (This stereotype isn’t actually true, at least not at the national level. Since Jimmy Carter left office, Republican Presidents have done far more to increase the national debt than Democrats.)

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A watershed moment for legalization in Vermont

This year, the state legislature did its best to tippy-toe around the issue of marijuana legalization. We heard the usual excuses — the time is not right, it needs more study, we’ve got too much else on our plate — and ended with an expensive consultant’s report sitting on a shelf.

Since then, two rather dramatic things have happened. Two weeks ago, Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito called for the legalization of marijuana and the decriminalization of personal use of other drugs.

I always knew that guy was a hippie! (Photo from his Facebook page.)

I always knew that guy was a hippie! (Photo from his Facebook page.)

And now, we have a pro-legalization essay by the top Republican in the State Senate, Joe Benning. His piece, posted today on VTDigger, said legalization is inevitable, that marijuana is a useful and “widely popular consumer product,” that legalization would result in “a safer product,” and — here comes the Republican part — it would create “a legitimate, properly regulated industry [that] can only lead to more real, good-paying jobs.”


Sen. Benning can’t swing the vote on his own since his caucus numbers a mere nine*. The next step in marijuana law is up to the many Weebles in the Democratic majority, who’ve been painfully hesitant on the issue.

*Originally I wrote “seven,” but the good Senator corrected me. Must have stumbled upon outdated numbers in my expert Googling.

But I’d think that Benning’s advocacy would give them an opening to advance legalization. Democrats tend to be thoroughly spooked by the threat of Republican counterattacks on crime issues. And although Benning is only one Republican, he’s a very influential one. His stand ought to inoculate Democrats from GOP attacks.

It’s hard not to see this as a big step toward the death of the costly and ineffective War On Drugs, or at least the death of its most ineffective component, the war on Weed.

Mary Hooper pulls some fat from the budgetary fire

Previously I brought you bitter tidings of a budget cut that would mean sending more Vermont inmates to for-profit, out-of-state prisons.

Well, my pessimism was premature. Today, Rep. Mary Hooper (D-Breezy Acres) introduced a plan to phase in the closure of the Southeast State Correctional Facility, and devote some of the projected savings to new re-entry programs designed to lower the inmate population. The plan appeared sound and convincing to the House Appropriations Committee. If it all works as planned, Vermont’s inmate census will be low enough when the prison closes, that no out-of-state transfers will be required. (Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito had estimated that 100 more inmates would have to be exported to the tender mercies of the Corrections Corporation of America.)

And bonus: the released inmates will be better prepared to make a successful re-entry into civilian life. That makes them less likely to re-offend.

Her proposal was accepted by the Appropriations Committee and folded into its budget plan. I don’t know all the details of Hooper’s proposal; I didn’t have a chance to speak with her today. But it’s good news. It turns a negative into a positive, and still allows the state to bank $1.7 million in savings from the prison closure.

More on today’s hot and heavy Appropriations action coming soon. Warning: not a lot of good news.

Rebalancing the inmate portfolio

The House Appropriations Committee is putting in long hours this week, trying to finish work on the budget by Friday afternoon. I don’t envy them their task… but I will point out one little detail regarding one of its proposed cuts.

One of the cuts in committee chair Mitzi Johnson’s list is the closure of the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor. Well, according to Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito, that would mean sending another 100 inmates to out-of-state, for-profit prisons.

Vermont has been making strides toward bringing its inmates home — possibly inspired by last summer’s court ruling that sending male inmates out-of-state without also sending female inmates is unconstitutional. The state chose not to appeal for fear the decision would be applied to the whole system. As it stood, only the inmate who filed suit was brought back to Vermont.

But the legal Sword of Damocles still hangs by a hair, so dozens of inmates have been repatriated in recent months. The out-of-state count is down to 340.

The fly in the ointment is that our contract with the Corrections Corporation of America calls for a minimum census of 380 inmates. If the count falls below that and stays there long enough, CCA can impose penalties.

That’d be inconvenient.

Our Democratic rulers seem to be taking steps to prevent that from happening. Gov. Shumlin’s budget proposal included the lease of 60 inmate beds to the U.S. Marshal’s office. And now we have a plan to close a state prison. The lease is a revenue source; the prison closure is a budget savings; and on top of that, we get the added bonus of avoiding penalties!

Everybody wins, right?

Well, everybody except the inmates we’ll continue to ship out of state, far away from their families and friends.

Inmates aren’t people; they’re fungible assets

For those who believe that shipping prison inmates to distant for-profit prisons is immoral (human rights), unconstitutional (judge’s decision, uncontested), or simply counterproductive (isolation may lead to recidivism), this week brought just a little bit of good news courtesy of the soon-to-depart Laura Krantz at VTDigger.

After bringing home a few dozen inmates this week, Vermont has roughly 360 inmates in a Kentucky prison and another 40 in Arizona — the lowest number in a decade.

With the good news came some bad: a provision in Vermont’s contract with the Corrections Corporation of America imposes penalties if the inmate population falls below 380. We are now very close to that figure.

Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito admits that the provision creates a disincentive for Vermont to bring more prisoners home, even if there’s space in state prisons.

Then came the Governor’s budget address on Thursday. One of the revenue upgrades is $1.7 million from the lease of 60 inmate beds to the U.S. Marshals.

Hmmm. A lower inmate population could trigger higher payments to CCA… but now we’re leasing five dozen beds, putting the squeeze on in-state prison space… Hey presto: Synergy! We save money on CCA and we make money from the U.S. Marshals.

Fiscally, it’s a win-win.

If you don’t mind treating your inmates like commodities instead of human beings.

The for-profit gulag

Need some reasons why Vermont should end its dependency on out-of-state, for-profit prisons?

Y’know, aside from the fact that it’s wrong, that sending people two thousand miles away is arguably cruel and unusual punishment, and that it may well make rehabilitation more difficult because the inmates are isolated from everyone they know?

Yes, aside from all that.

And aside from the fact that prison contractor Corrections Corporation of America is a particularly scummy operation that’s gotten into trouble for inadequate medical care leading to inmate deaths, overbilling government clients, persistently understaffing prisons so that violence and drug abuse become widespread, providing “substandard food and medical conditions,” and aggressively lobbying for tougher detention and sentencing laws so they can fill their prisons, specifically backing Arizona’s notorious SB 1070, which turned every law enforcement official in the state into a de facto immigration enforcer?

Yes, even aside from all that. A couple of recent stories about Vermont’s dealings with the prison industry ought to give fresh impetus to the movement to bring our inmates home.

First, Vermont’s four-year contract with CCA expires next summer. But, as VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld reported this week, “the process isn’t likely to dramatically improve conditions” for Vermont’s out-of-state inmates:

[Corrections Commissioner Andy] Pallito says Vermont won’t bring a strong hand into its negotiations.

“There’s something like 100,000 beds in the out-of-state market,” Pallito said. “We’re only looking at 400 or 500 or 600 beds in total, and so we’re a pretty small consumer.”

… “Because we’re such a small consumer in this market, we’re kind of not in a position where we can dictate a lot of the contract particulars,” Pallito said. “And so we’re a little bit at the mercy of the bidders.”

“Kind of,” “a little bit.” What deft understatement.

So we’re pretty much at the mercy of whichever prison operator deigns to bother with our penny-ante contract. Or is desperate enough to fill vacant beds that it’ll go after the Vermont business. But they’re unlikely to cut us any slack.

The Florence Correctional Center, where 28 Vermont inmates are subject to CCA's tender mercies.

The Florence Correctional Center, where 28 Vermont inmates are subject to CCA’s tender mercies.

And second, an August 22 “disturbance” among a relative handful of Vermont inmates warehoused in Arizona resulted in 13 of them going into solitary confinement for over a month. The incident went unreported in Vermont until late September, when the Department of Corrections confirmed it to Seven Days’ Mark Davis.

This is troubling because, as outgoing State Rep. Suzy Wizowaty, head of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, noted, “If this had happened in Vermont, we would have heard about it.” And if CCA had its way, we won’t hear anything more:

In a written statement, CCA confirmed the incident and the inmates’ subsequent punishment, but did not provide additional details.

It’s unclear when CCA got around to informing the state of Vermont, but it wasn’t until September 10 — nineteen days after the incident — that DOC sent an investigative team to the Arizona prison where they “found no problems… and took no action.”

Meanwhile, as far as we know, the 13 inmates are still held in solitary, “confined to individual cells for 23 hours a day.” And according to Richard Byrne, the DOC’s out-of-state unit supervisor,

… it is unclear how long the punishment will last — CCA, not Vermont DOC, is in charge.


If you’d like to read more about the for-profit entity who’s “in charge” of our inmates, try reading “The Dirty Thirty: Nothing to Celebrate About 30 years of Corrections Corporation of America,” published in 2013 by Grassroots Leadership.

I say “try reading,” because you might just want to stop after a few pages and wonder why your Vermont tax dollars are going into the coffers of this corporate gang.

Hey, Bill Sorrell. I understand you’re running for re-election. Again. If you’re looking for a handy cause to burnish your fading reputation have a real, strong, positive impact, how about pushing for some serious sentencing reform? Maybe even a thorough review of Vermont’s inmate population, to see which ones could be released without endangering public safety? Given the number of nonviolent and elderly inmates (second highest percentage of inmates over 55 of any state), maybe we could get away without signing another contract with CCA.

You’d be a hero to your liberal base, Bill. Think about it.