Tag Archives: Mike Smith

VSEA doubles down in spite of a weak hand

The Vermont State Employees Association may be setting itself up for a fall. Or at the very least, a split within its own ranks and among its political supporters.

Last Friday, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith issued a report to Gov. Phil Scott about the prison abuse crisis, and I have to say, it looks like he’s taking this seriously and coming down hard across the board. He wrote of the need for a “culture change” in the Department of Corrections and specific changes in how administrators handle internal wrongdoing and offending personnel. He also called for drug testing for DOC employees, tougher hiring criteria and a more thorough ban on prison personnel having sex with inmates.

The VSEA accused Smith of a “knee-jerk reaction,” which is, um, ironic, don’tcha think, since it’s the VSEA itself whose knee is jerking.

In workplace disputes, labor unions’ first reaction is to protect the interests of its members. There are good and valid reasons for this. But it’s not always the best thing to do — for the health of the organization, the public interest and even the greatest good for union members.

“I think I would characterize [Smith’s report] as an overreach to try to hide from the public the fact that this case is really gross managerial and incompetence,” said VSEA executive director Steve Howard, despite the fact that Smith targeted front-line workers and administration alike. Never have I heard Smith try to blame the scandal solely on VSEA members. Indeed, his quickest and most decisive actions have been aimed at the top ranks of the DOC, not the poor downtrodden wage slaves.

Howard added that “99 percent” of DOC workers are “upstanding” employees. That percentage might be a little high, but let’s take his point at face value. Isn’t it in the interest of the 99 percent to eliminate the bad ones? It’s not only inmates who have been victimized; DOC employees themselves have reported being subject to harassment and retaliation. Shouldn’t Howard be just as quick to protect their interests?

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If I hear someone say “a few bad apples,” I’m gonna scream

The Vermont Department of Corrections (Not Exactly As Illustrated) (Or Maybe It Is)

As Vermont’s prison scandal continues to spread and deepen, I find myself pondering a simple question:

How are the Democrats going to handle this?

The latest in this head-spinning affair is the indefinite suspension of the top two officials at the Northern State Correctional Facility in Newport. DOC Commissioner-For-Now Mike Touchette announced the suspensions in a Friday newsdump. He didn’t explain the reasons — but dollars to donuts it’s no coincidence that the action comes a few days after Human Services Secretary Mike Smith launched his own investigation, which initially (at least) focused on the state’s only women’s prison.

And while we wait for more dominoes to fall, let’s consider that the scandal puts the Democrats in a tight spot. At first glance, you might think they’d be rarin’ to dig up a nice juicy election-year scandal that might put a few dents in Gov. Phil Scott’s Teflon.

But maybe not.

Some factors to consider. Former DOC commissioner Lisa Menard served from 2015 to 2018. Yep, she was appointed by Democrat Peter Shumlin. She and Touchette are longtime veterans of the department, who rose through the ranks under Democratic and Republican governors. The documented problems at the women’s prison go back to at least 2012, which would be Shumlin’s first term. This scandal may have blown open on Scott’s watch, but it’s really a bipartisan issue.

The potential principals in this affair — Menard, Touchette, Smith, and his predecessor Al Gobeille — are all familiar faces around state government. They are past or present denizens of the Statehouse bubble. They are well known and — rightly or wrongly — respected by legislators. Rep. Alice Emmons, who’s served in the House since 1983, is the longtime chair of the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, which will tackle the prison scandal. She and her committee have had responsibility for oversight of the system, and failed to keep the system on the straight and narrow. Is she going to dig deep into this thing, or will she be inclined to lay the blame at the feet of “a few bad apples”?

And again, if I hear that phrase in January, I’m going to scream. Because even at this early stage, there’s overwhelming evidence that this problem isn’t confined to the front-line workers. It’s clear that DOC management actively conspired to keep things quiet.

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Donovan mulls outside monitor for women’s prison

The scandal-plagued Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility may need an independent monitor to provide an outside view of its management. Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan floated the idea Monday, in an interview from the meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General in Washington.

A report in last week’s Seven Days outlined a years-long pattern of sexual assault and other misbehavior at Vermont’s only women’s prison — and a pattern of covering up or ignoring those abuses. Since then, Gov. Phil Scott has ordered Human Services Secretary Mike Smith to launch an investigation, Smith has assumed managerial control of the prison and House Democrats plan to conduct hearings on the scandal as soon as the new legislative session begins next month.

Donovan said the idea of an independent monitor arose Monday in a side conversation at the NAAG meeting. “This has been done at the federal level with troubled prisons,” Donovan said. “Usually, there’s a list of criteria for compliance that the independent party would monitor.” Donovan isn’t ready to advocate for the move, but he noted that “we may need some sort of independent third party.”

Donovan has not launched his own investigation of the prison; instead, he is assisting with Smith’s probe. There’s also a criminal investigation underway by the Vermont State Police. Donovan defended his decision to stay in a supporting role for now.

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On the women’s prison scandal

First of all, full credit to Paul Heintz and the Seven Days team for producing a tremendously impactful piece of reporting. You know you’ve hit the mark when you force every political figure in Vermont to stop in their tracks and take action to investigate a scandal.

And scandal it is. An epidemic of sexual assault involving guards and inmates at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, Vermont’s only women’s prison:

“It’s an epidemic at this facility,” said one longtime officer who claims to have faced retaliation for speaking out against it.

“The [officers] lie, have sex with inmates, assault people and have each other’s backs to ensure that nobody finds out,” said Melissa Gaboury, who was released from the prison last week. “They also retaliate against any inmate for speaking about anything.”

Not good. Not good at all. Especially in a time when the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) has mandated procedures for curbing sexual assault behind bars. And when the state’s corrections department has supposedly complied with the law.

Yeah, maybe not.

If half the stuff in Heintz’s story, and his follow-up piece, is true, then this is a full-on scandal that ought to rock the state’s corrections system to its core. People should be fired. People should be brought up on criminal charges. And not just guards on the front lines, but top officials who must have been complicit in cover-ups and creating (or permitting) a culture of denial and suppression.

The cherry on this shit sundae: Daniel Zorzi, a corrections officer who was a known drug abuser, and who trafficked in and shared drugs with inmates, was somehow named the DOC’s 2018 shift supervisor of the year. Here he is, embarrassingly enough, posing with then-corrections commissioner Lisa Menard and then-human services secretary Al Gobeille.

Oopsie.
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Milne foresees invasion of North Korea

Even by his own unpredictable standards, Scott Milne made a stupefying comment in a broadcast interview on Thursday.

Appearing on WDEV Radio’s “Open Mike,” the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate said that if North Korea didn’t come to its senses, “they’re going to have to be taken out.”

Cough.

In case you’re wondering about context, here’s the paragraph that ended with Milne calling for Korean War II. It began with Smith asking what we should do about North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear capability.

I, I think we need to, um, support a strong South Korea, we need to not provoke ‘em, but we need to be, if they continue down this nuclear path, we don’t want to be drawing lines in the sand in my opinion, we want to have quiet diplomatic dialogue with them, hopefully there’s a change in the regime there, but they’re gonna have to join the, um, the world as we know it now or they’re going to have to be taken out.

“…they’re going to have to be taken out.”

Talk about dangerous ignorance of global relationships.

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Phil Scott is not a chicken, but he’s running a chickenshit campaign

Almost two weeks ago, I contacted the Phil Scott campaign asking for some simple but crucial information. It ought to be readily available, a simple email away.

The response to my repeated emails and phone calls?

Nothing. Not even a courtesy “Hey, we got your message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.”

Crickets.

Here’s my question. Phil Scott regularly claims that over the past six years of Democratic governance*, taxes and fees have increased by $700 million.

*He never refers to Peter Shumlin by name, it’s always the collective Democrats. Hive mind? 

All I want is the numbers. Which taxes and which fees have increased by how much? When you add them up, do they equal $700 million?

That’s all.

C’mon, if I were running a campaign and making that kind of claim, I’d make sure I had the figures close at hand. Indeed, he shouldn’t in good conscience make that claim unless he knows it’s true.

Right?

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Ducking and Knuckling — UPDATED with Minter reax

I see from Paul Heintz’ “Fair Game” column that one feature of every electoral season is in high gear: the debate over debates.

Apparent front-runner Phil Scott is doing what front-runners do: insisting on conditions that minimize his exposure. To wit, he wants beloved nutcase Bill “Spaceman” Lee to take part in all debates.

So, this week’s one-on-one with Sue Minter might turn out to be a one-off.

Which would be a shame, and a disservice to the electorate. The real contest is between Scott and Minter. There should be a thorough exploration of their ideas, and they need to be put to the test in direct confrontation without any moonbats cluttering up the stage and hogging one-third of the available time.

Scott insists he’s not being chicken, but let’s keep it a hundy. He is.

And now, let us consider two media outlets who have responded very differently to Scott’s ultimatum. Let’s see if you can guess which is which.

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The Punditry Sausage Party

Friday afternoon I was reading a report on vpr.net about young people entering politics after being inspired by Bernie Sanders. It was a perfectly cromulent time-filler, not particularly long on insight or depth  (quotes from only two candidates, no attempt to identify a larger trend).

Near the end came this passage:

Eric Davis, a professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, says it’s too soon to tell:

“In this year’s presidential cycle, Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has certainly inspired many young people to get involved in politics,” Davis said. “The question I have, and I believe it’s too early to provide an answer to this question, is whether these impacts of the Sanders’ campaign are going to continue beyond the end of 2016.”

… and my left eyelid started twitching.

I’ve got no beef with Davis, a reliable source for a useful bit of conventional wisdom. But what suddenly struck me and my eyelid is the absolute ubiquity of the same handful of pundits quoted endlessly by Vermont media.

Davis is far and away number one. If someone decides there’s been a little too much Davis, they might make a call to Garrison Nelson. Or Chris “Undiscolsed Conflict” Graff. Or, in the case of Channel 3, Mike Smith and Steve Terry.

(Not to mention VTDigger’s political columnist, Jon Margolis.)

It’s a small punditical pool. And there’s a distinct ball smell about it.

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EB-5: the tar baby of Vermont politics

I was wondering when a candidate would dip his hand into the EB-5 cookie jar. It’s easy pickin’s if you want to criticize Democratic leadership of state government. And here we go, Phil Scott’s dug in for some sweet treats.

After positing his support for EB-5 “with proper oversight,” he laid into the Shumlin administration on a specific point:

I was disappointed to learn… that the Shumlin Administration enabled the owners of the EB-5 projects in the Northeast Kingdom… to continue to solicit investors for months after the SEC had suspended that permission for Jay Peak. … By the Administration’s own admission, it was a ‘calculated risk.’  Yet, they’ve not yet explained why they took this risk or why they allowed the problem to continue to grow.

Now, here’s the problem.

The Shumlin administration made that decision in the spring of 2015. (More on that in a moment.) In June of that year, VTDigger’s Anne Galloway broke the news that federal authorities were investigating Jay Peak.

For months after that, Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott expressed his wholehearted support for Jay Peak. Indeed, in November he criticized the administration for inserting itself into the process, thus delaying payments to contractors.

Despite the issues at Q Burke, Scott says he still supports Vermont’s EB-5 program. He added that he sympathizes with [Jay Peak contractor] PeakCM, as he owns his own construction company.

So, hypocrite. But wait, there’s more.

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The VTGOP’s convention dilemma

This coming weekend will feature the Democratic (Saturday Sunday in Barre) and Republican (Sunday Saturday in Burlington) state conventions. The Dems will be trying to accommodate the Bernie Sanders crowd enough to forestall any open warfare; and the four superdelegates who plan to support Hillary Clinton are girding themselves for a Bernie Bro onslaught.

But the real entertainment value is likely to come from the Republican gathering, where party leaders and potential candidates will have to deal with the unpleasant fact of Donald Trump at the top of their ticket.

And the national GOP is sending a clear message to state parties: Bow Down Before The Donald.

Republican activists chose party unity over “never Trump” resistance Saturday, with party leaders in one state after another pressuring their members to fall in line behind the presumptive nominee — and even punishing those who refused.

Eleven states held annual Republican conventions or party leadership meetings Saturday, offering a platform for those who still object to Donald Trump… But at almost every turn, they slammed into state leaders who closed ranks around a candidate who many once said they’d never support.

Interesting moment for Phil Scott, the VTGOP’s shining star and likely gubernatorial nominee. If the convention falls in line with Trump, he’ll be an isolated, neutered figure in his own party.

Especially if his challenger Bruce Lisman chooses that moment to finally endorse Trump — which he’s almost certain to do sometime.

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