Tag Archives: Janssen Willhoit

The “moderate” VTGOP is a mythical beast

A few interesting things came out of the Vermont Republican Convention on Saturday — besides revealing that Phil Scott can’t take a rhetorical punch.

I thought it shone a harsh and unforgiving light on the idea that Vermont Republicans are a breed apart — the last surviving redoubt of moderate Republicanism. That’s largely a fiction created in a desperate effort to appeal to the liberal Vermont electorate. It takes on the veneer of reality thanks to the thoroughly moderate image of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. But the party ranks are full of garden-variety 21st Century Republicanism. Vermont Republicans may have thrown in the towel on social issues like marriage equality and abortion rights*, but they are a stoutly conservative bunch when it comes to brass-tacks issues like government spending, regulation, and taxation.

*Well, let’s say they are withholding the towel. I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts they’d change their tune if they ever achieved political power.

After all, this is a party that eagerly embraced John Kasich, a man whose tax plan would make Ronald Reagan blush with embarrassment. George W. Bush, too, for that matter.

But there were signs aplenty at the Convention that this is a party with a strongly conservative core.

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Janssen Willhoit: a correction and amplification

In my previous post, I reported the criminal past of Janssen Willhoit, Republican candidate for the legislature in St. Johnsbury. He served time in a Kentucky prison for running an investment scam, and failing to make restitution to his victims.

In my post, I wrote the following:

… he has not revealed his troubles; his campaign bio carefully omits any hint of his criminal offense and incarceration, even as it trumpets his advocacy for inmates’ rights.

My conclusion: His offense doesn’t disqualify him from public service, but the voters deserve to know and have the opportunity to make their own judgments. It appears to me that the candidate could tell a powerful and believable story of redemption. But he needs to explain why he deserves the public’s trust.

I’ve been informed by a keen observer in St. J that this is not true: he has been openly speaking of his experiences. From the May 14 Caledonian-Record:

… His path to St. Johnsbury includes being a financial broker, an independent investment advisor, going to prison, and being raped in prison. Being raped earned him time in the “hole” which meant he missed his parole hearing. During his time in prison Janssen committed himself to helping people in need. He started by helping prisoners learn to read, while he was still in prison, and being sent back to the hole for starting a “reading gang.”

Janssen eventually received an executive pardon from the Kentucky governor, and then became instrumental in getting many changes to the Kentucky prison system — including making same-sex rapes a crime. There is a connection between Kentucky and Vermont — Vermont houses inmates in Kentucky and Janssen learned of Vermont’s work with prisoner rights.

Unfortunately for me and for the truth, the Caledonian-Record’s content is behind a paywall, and is not referenced on Internet search engines.

In my searches about Willhoit, I could find no hint that he had revealed his past. His website contains no clue of it. I tried to be thorough, I tried to be factual, and I tried to be fair.

And I failed. For that, I apologize to Mr. Willhoit.

At the end of my post, I wrote the following:

… the people of St. Johnsbury should know about it, and he should fully explain the circumstances of his offense, whether he has repaid his victims, and if not, why not. After that, the voters can make an informed choice.

In fact, he had already done that. He has been forthcoming about his past, and the voters can make an informed choice.

Which leaves me with one unanswered question: did the person who gave me the tip about Willhoit know that he’d been honest about his past? If not, then no harm, no foul. If so, then I’ve been the victim of a dirty political trick. In the future, I’ll try to be more careful about such things.

How pertinent is a candidate’s past? A case study

Update: Some of what I write in this post is not true. The candidate has, in fact, spoken publicly about his past. Please see the following correction for the full story and my apology. 

The other day I got a tip. It was about a candidate for the legislature who had  supposedly been charged in another state with running an investment scam, pled guilty to a reduced charge, and served time in prison. Since his release, he has apparently kept his nose clean. Indeed, he became something of an inmates’ rights activist.

He later moved to Vermont, where he has continued on the straight and narrow. He’s now running for State House. He hasn’t revealed his criminal past, nor has anyone reported it, although it can be found through a simple Google search.

The story is more complicated than the original tip would suggest. And I pondered whether I should let it alone. After all, he seems to have reformed himself, and everyone deserves a second chance.

In the end, after much thought, I decided to write this post. The deciding factors: His offense was a serious one — he was accused of bilking investors of as much as $150,000. This happened relatively recently, roughly ten years ago. He was under court order to repay his victims, and as far as I can tell he has failed to do so. And he has not revealed his troubles; his campaign bio carefully omits any hint of his criminal offense and incarceration, even as it trumpets his advocacy for inmates’ rights.

My conclusion: His offense doesn’t disqualify him from public service, but the voters deserve to know and have the opportunity to make their own judgments. It appears to me that the candidate could tell a powerful and believable story of redemption. But he needs to explain why he deserves the public’s trust.

The candidate in question is Janssen Willhoit, Republican hopeful for the State House in St. Johnsbury. His story:

In June 2004, Willhoit was arrested on charges of “theft by deception.” His victims included the mayor of Stanford, Kentucky. The details:

The investment scam was first reported by Stanford Mayor Eddie Carter, said [Stanford police detective Rick] Edwards. Carter had reportedly invested more than $50,000 of his personal money with Willhoit’s false company, Net City. Net City, which promised investors high interest rates, was supposedly a subsidiary of National City Bank. But when Carter called to check on his account, he was told the number was a phony.

… False investment paperwork had lulled the victims into trusting Net City by indicating the company was a affiliated with Met Life Insurance companies and of legitimate financial protection companies, Securities Investor Protection Corp. and NASD. Officials from the bank and Met Life confirmed that Net City was never an associate during that time, police report.

… Investors’ cash is thought to have been used to support Willhoit’s comfortable lifestyle before his arrest.

In August, Mayor Carter filed a civil suit against Willhoit. He quickly won, and was awarded $55,000 in restitution and damages.

In November 2004, Willhoit agreed to a plea deal that would have let him avoid prison if he repaid his victims. The first step in that process was to post a $10,000 bond, followed by monthly payments of $600.

But in December, he was back in court:

Janssen Willhoit, 25, who swindled approximately $95,000 from three Stanford residents through a phony company, was sentenced to 10 years in prison with the possibility of shock probation.

… Willhoit faced Circuit Judge Robert Gillum without having paid the promised money. Both the judge and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Daryl Day expressed their frustration with the development.

“He doesn’t have the $10,000,” said [defense attorney Mitchell] Berryman. “It leaves us in a quandary.”

“It doesn’t leave me in a quandary,” Gillum said. “I guess he’s going to serve some time then. He’s obviously not going to meet the conditions of probation… He lied to the court.”

In February 2005 Willhoit was back before Judge Gillum to request “shock probation,” which is sometimes granted inmates — usually first-time offenders —  after they’ve been in prison for a short time. The idea is that being behind bars might “shock” a person into changing his ways. But the judge wasn’t buying it. 

Lincoln Circuit Judge Robert Gillum, who handed down Willhoit’s sentence last year, again had stern words for the swindler. Gillum said Willhoit lied to the court in the past by promising to, but not posting, a $10,000 bail to be used as restitution money. Gillum said Willhoit was a flight risk, despite his claims otherwise, and denied the motion.

Screen Shot 2014-09-21 at 10.01.59 PMWillhoit went back to prison. I haven’t been able to determine exactly when he was released. He was definitely out no later than 2009; in February 2010 he testified before a state legislative committee in favor of a bill to allow former inmates to regain their voting rights. He described himself as a former inmate. (Accompanying image is from the video of his testimony.)

Later that year he moved to Vermont and began studies at Vermont Law School. After graduating, he moved to St. Johnsbury and joined the law firm of Willey & Power.

Earlier this year, Willhoit launched a campaign for State House. In the August primary, he came in second in a three-way race for two Republican nominations, advancing him to the November election.

Willhoit’s campaign bio barely mentions his life before 2010. It does boast of his volunteer efforts after Tropical Storm Irene, his work as a public defender in the Northeast Kingdom, his active membership in a local church, and his work mentoring prisoners.

It also proclaims his commitment “to serving the least among us” without ever mentioning that he used to be one of the least among us.

As I said earlier, I don’t believe that Willhoit’s criminal past or his apparent failure to make restitution should disqualify him from the Legislature. (Insert snide comment about the probity of State House denizens here.) But the people of St. Johnsbury should know about it, and he should fully explain the circumstances of his offense, whether he has repaid his victims, and if not, why not. After that, the voters can make an informed choice.