Tag Archives: Peter Shumlin

We’ve Got an Overflow in the Moral Sewer of Vermont Politics

Something stinks around here, and it looks like the Powers That Be are scrambling to keep anyone from identifying the source of the stench.

For those just tuning in, tonight’s VTDigger brings us the happy tidings of an agreement between federal prosecutors and Bill Stenger, one of the defendants in the EB-5 fraud case. The two sides have agreed on what evidence will be presented in Stenger’s case… and in exchange, Stenger’s lawyers won’t force a whole bunch of well-connected Vermonters to testify under oath.

See, Stenger’s defense had argued that state officials knew about the fraud long before it was publicly revealed and did nothing to stop it. Given the contents of a recent document dump, it’s clear that Team Shumlin knew a great deal and did their best to keep it under the rug. So their appearances under oath would have been at least embarrassing and perhaps incriminating.

The Vermonters in question include former governor Peter Shumlin and at least five top officials in his administration. They would have taken the stand next week, so this deal is a last-minute reprieve for these worthies. And yet another roadblock in the path of public disclosure. This fraud goes back at least a decade, and we’ve still only seen the faint outlines of official complicity.

Imagine, just for shits and giggles, Shumlin takes the stand and his testimony is at odds with the evidentiary record. Or he ducks the questions and pleads the Fifth. Not a good look, that.

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Boo This Man

It’s possible, in this moment of his ultimate disgrace, to feel just a little bit sorry for ex-governor Peter Shumlin. From fall 2014 to summer 2015, he endured three separate political de-pantsings — any one of which could have felled a lesser man in his tracks. First, his near-defeat at the hands of political outsider (and truly terrible campaigner) Scott Milne; then, having to admit failure in his signature push for single-payer health care; and then, in the spring of 2015, finding out that the Quiros/Stenger EB-5 projects were built on fiscal and ethical quicksand.

That said, his governorship will have to go down in history as singularly disastrous.

We know this now because of the dogged efforts of VTDigger to unearth a trove of documents kept secret by state officials. Its pursuit of the EB-5 White Whale was rewarded last week by a federal judge’s ruling that the documents must be made public.

And now, after poring their way through the docs, Alan Keays and Anne Galloway have published one of the most damning political pieces in recent memory. They recount how Shumlin and his team knew by the spring of 2015 that the EB-5 projects were fundamentally fraudulent and doomed to collapse… and yet they kept on flogging the projects for a full year. Their efforts only ended in the spring of 2016 when the feds launched a massive civil suit against Bill Stenger and Ariel Quiros.

That’s bad. But Keays and Galloway document a variety of ways in which the story is even worse than that dreadful topline. Let’s run the highlights, shall we?

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BCBS Makes Everyone’s Lives Miserable to Save a Little Coin

This won’t be news to any BlueCross BlueShield health insurance client, but the Blues did something this year that added fresh levels of annoyance to the lives of patients and providers throughout Vermont.

The Blues made a big change in its prescription drug coverage. It hired Optum RX as its pharmacy benefits manager. Which led to new, stricter requirements for a broad array of prescription medications. This will presumably save the Blues some money, but it will do so by offloading a lot of pain and extra work onto patients and prescribers.

(Before I go on, tip of the hat to fellow blogger Matt Sutkoski, who posted his own screed on this topic a few days ago. I’d been thinking about this for quite a while, but his essay crystallized my own thoughts.)

If you heard the ringing of a faint bell at the name “Optum,” that’s because it was a key player in then-governor Peter Shumlin’s Vermont Health Connect fiasco. Step with me into the Wayback Machine, which is set for October 31, 2014 — just a few days before the election Shumlin almost fumbled away to challenger Scott Milne.

On that day, we learned that the cost of VHC would be $20 million higher than expected. And that, my friends, was not the bad news. There were a number of horrible particulars, some of which involved Optum. Its employees were said to be poorly trained and making mistakes. A top VHC official observed that Optum had every motivation to let the work drag on and on, because the longer the project the more money it made.

So yeah, a corporation with some definite baggage in these parts.

What is Optum doing to, ahem, Optum-ize the Blues’ prescription drug coverage?

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There Are Two Ways This Can End, and They’re Both Terrible

Anne Galloway, the Captain Ahab of Vermont journalism, has returned to port with another big bloody chunk of the Great White Whale.

The whale is the EB-5 scandal, about which fundamental questions remain unanswered because a lot of information has yet to be made public. I don’t agree with how VTDigger is stonewalling its union, but this is an example of why we need Digger. Galloway is doing a tremendous public service by chasing a complicated story that no other media outlet has been willing to tackle.

Should I do a brief recap of the EB-5 thing? Is that possible? Well, here we go.

EB-5 is a program that offers green cards to foreign investors who put money into development projects in designated rural and/or poor areas. It was a small thing in Vermont until the great recession of 2008-9, when it suddenly took off. State oversight failed to keep up with its rapid growth. A lot of good projects got built, but Ariel Quiros allegedly committed large-scale fraud by taking money for projects he never built. He was assisted in these efforts by Vermont businessman Bill Stenger.

The state of Vermont, particularly the Shumlin administration, either failed to detect the fraud or tried to cover it up. Which one? Probably both, but we don’t know because a lot of key documents are still, several years later, being kept under wraps.

VTDigger has been diligently pursuing those documents, and keeps winning partial victories. Which then gives them reams upon reams of documents to go through.

On Wednesday, Digger posted another installment in its series. This time, it reports that state officials knew there was fraudulent activity two years before the the scandal was revealed by federal regulators in 2016.

Yikes.

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We’ve Been Shortchanging Female Inmates for a Long Time

I don’t normally tune into a legislative committee hearing to get a history lesson. But that’s what I got Wednesday afternoon. It was a tough one to take.

Vermont’s women’s prison, d/b/a Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, is in really bad shape. It’s old, and was never designed to be a full-scale prison. It’s unsanitary and inadequate for inmates’ needs.

I knew that. What I didn’t know until today is that the CRCF has been that way since it first opened as a women’s prison back in 2011. The Shumlin administration moved female inmates into the already-aging facility knowing full well that it wasn’t up to par.

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Maybe We’re Finally On Our Way to a Functioning Mental Health System

“Temporary facility,” well beyond its sell-by date.

Congratulations to the Scott administration for finally making a long-overdue commitment to the state’s mental health system. Its FY22 capital budget includes $11.6 million to build a replacement to the rattletrap pictured above. That, in all its prefab glory, is the Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence, which houses people who are transitioning from psychiatric hospitalization to independent living.

The MTCR was built in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, which flooded the old state psychiatric hospital in Waterbury. It was thrown up quickly using a pair of modular units, and opened in 2013 as a stopgap. Its time has come and gone.

It’s also too small for demand. Its seven beds are almost always full. The new digs would have 16 beds. The idea is that a larger step-down facility would allow more patients to be discharged from hospitals sooner, freeing up those beds and (hopefully) eliminating the constant issue of severely ill patients being parked in emergency rooms for lack of psychiatric beds.

This all sends me down Memory Lane. I’ve been following the state’s woeful efforts to rebuild the system since 2011. In the wake of Irene, the Shumlin administration announced plans to craft a new, much more community-oriented system. Such a system would theoretically require fewer inpatient beds because more people would get treatment sooner, before they got really sick.

Shumlin’s original plan for a new psychiatric hospital called for 16 beds. At the same time, embarrassingly, the then-medical director for the mental health department Dr. Jay Batra was saying the new hospital should be at least as large as Waterbury’s 50-plus beds.

At the time, administration officials pooh-poohed Batra.

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Pearce’s Pivot

Still proud of her, @vtdemocrats?

At the end of last week, we got a sizeable Friday newsdump from an unusual source: State Treasurer Beth Pearce. In a report on the state’s public pension funds, she called for new limits on pensions for state employees and teachers. It was duly reported, first by VPR and then by VTDigger, but neither story captured the significance of Pearce’s pivot.

This is, in my view, the single biggest position shift by a top Democratic officeholder since Peter Shumlin abandoned single-payer health care in 2014. That move brought Shumlin’s political career to an ignoble conclusion, since he’d staked his governorship on delivering single-payer. I doubt that Pearce will have to slink off into the darkness, but she might not get the rapturous receptions at party functions that she’s gotten used to.

The pension plans don’t have enough funds to pay promised benefits because, through most of Howard Dean’s governorship and about half of Jim Douglas’, the state consistently shorted its annual contribution. Many have called for a shift from defined-benefit to a 401K-style defined-contribution plan. The former promises definite retirement benefits; the latter only promises to contribute money to the plan. Actual benefits depend on the health of the pension fund.

Pearce had been a champion of retaining defined-benefit. She’s an expert at public finance, so her view has carried a lot of weight. Now, she has abandoned that position. She still supports defined-benefit plans… but she has effectively changed her definition of the term. That’s a big, hairy deal. It puts legislative Democrats under pressure to go along with pension cuts — and that threatens to drive a wedge between the Vermont Democratic Party and two of its biggest supporters: the Vermont State Employees Association and the Vermont National Education Association.

I can’t say I blame her, given her recitation of the facts. But this could touch off a political shitstorm.

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The Stupidest Scandal

The latest twist in the story of Brandon del Pozo’s Twitter trolling has got to be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in politics. Not the most impactful, not the most scandalous, not the most significant — just the stupidest.

For those just joining us, del Pozo resignedas Burlington’s police chief last December after it was revealed that he used a burner Twitter account to criticize pesky police critic Charles WInkleman. At the time, Mayor Miro Weinberger denied all knowledge of del Pozo’s astoundingly petty tweets.

And now, Seven Days has discovered that, well, actually, Weinberger did know about the account after all.

Sheesh. And if you read the entire article, you’ll realize that this isn’t the first time Weinberger has kicked this particular ball into his own goal. Quite the contrary; he’s had, to put it charitably, a tangential relationship with the truth.

It’s just sooooooo stupid. And it might just end Weinberger’s political career.

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“Welcome back to The Gutter, Mr. Milne. Your usual table?”

Scott Milne started the general election season with a vow to run an issues-oriented campaign. He backed it up with his big glossy 60-point ProgressVT action plan.

And ever since, he’s used ProgressVT as a fig leaf for an overwhelmingly negative campaign. Which is par for the course. This is, after all, the guy who ran an entirely negative campaign against Sen. Partick Leahy that included an amateurish TV ad that accused Leahy of having contracted “the DiCa Virus,” short for District of Columbia and a dumb play on the Zika virus. The spot looks even worse in retrospect, now that we’re actually in a battle with a deadly pandemic.

We got another taste of The Gutter’s menu on Monday, aided and abetted by WPTZ anchor/reporter/apparent Milne honk Stewart Ledbetter. (Who, in a mere two days, will be moderating a debate between the two candidates. Yeesh.)

On a day when Gray held a press conference announcing endorsements by 15 state senators, Ledbetter obtained a list of tweets sent from Democrat Molly Gray’s campaign account during business hours — when she was supposed to be working as an assistant attorney general. His report, which is partially available on Channel 5’s website (the video cuts off before the end), begins by recounting the endorsement event. He notes, as did I, that Gray’s list doesn’t include eight members of the majority caucus.

He then pivots to footage of Milne pointing out the senatorial absences with that familiar smirk on his face.

And then Ledbetter rolls out the Twitter bit. Or, as he put it, “A new list of Twitter posts emerged Monday with timestamps suggesting Gray conducted some campaign activities during the workday.”

Yeah, ha ha ha, “emerged.” As if out of the clear blue sky.

We know from one of the earlier debates that someone with the Milne campaign, or someone backing him, submitted a wide-ranging public records request for all Gray’s communications between the launch of her campaign and her taking a leave of absence from the AGO, hunting for signs of electioneering by Gray during business hours.

Well, they labored mightily and produced a mouse: The list of 101 allegedly offending tweets.

Gray’s response? “Every campaign has staff with access to its campaign Twitter account.”

Shocker, that. And yes, it’s standard operating procedure for campaign staff to tweet approved messages. Milne’s got nothing. I’m not surprised; in my experience, Gray was very careful to confine her campaigning to non-work hours until she took her leave.

What Milne or his backers were hoping to find was clear evidence of campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime. And all they got was a few dozen tweets from a campaign account that’s accessible by others in Gray’s campaign team.

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As long as we’re considering youthful indiscretions…

In Thursday’s lieutenant governor debate, Republican Scott Milne launched an all-out attack on Democrat Molly Gray for her supposedly spendthrift agenda and, naturally, her spotty voting record. He scored some points in the process.

He also opened the door to an attack-oriented campaign at odds with his self-positioning as a moderate Nice Guy. And to considerations of each candidate’s personal history. He may live to regret that, since there are a few known skeletons in his otherwise unexplored closet. Let’s start by comparing the two candidates in their formative years.

While graduating from law school, becoming an attorney and establishing herself as a globetrotting professional deeply engaged in justice issues, Gray frequently failed to vote.

Meanwhile, in his youth, Milne was a cocaine user and impaired driver with two DUI arrests.

I dunno, seems like a wash to me.

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