On Sunday afternoon, the Vermont Democratic Party issued a thorough and putatively transparent explanation for the Brandon Batham case. Unfortunately, it raises quite a few questions — and its effort to exculpate party leadership rings a bit hollow.
Batham is the former party staffer who resigned suddenly last month. A couple of weeks later, the VDP issued a press release stating that Batham had embezzled close to $3,000 in party funds. But toward the end of last week, I learned that the actual amount was much larger — although I was unable to find out how much. Lips were tightly zippered, and information was closely held by a handful of top officials. Not even the party’s executive committee was informed.
So I wrote what I knew on Friday. Less than 48 hours later, the party issued a press release stating the Batham had taken an additional $15,629 — bringing the total to roughly $18,500. The embezzlements took place between January and June of this year. The statement acknowledged that the total could go even higher, as a third-party audit of the VDP’s books is underway.
Well, that’s comforting. How bad is the bookkeeping system anyway?
The party explained that the original $2,931 was skimmed from party funds, and the remaining $15K-plus was taken by Batham by way of the payroll system. He gave himself an “unauthorized raise,” and also issued “unauthorized additional paychecks and ‘bonuses’ between official pay-periods” to himself.
Which, as the party itself states, he shouldn’t have been able to do. Batham, the release states, “did not have signing powers on the party accounts.”
From January through April, it was then-executive director Josh Massey — who goes unnamed in the party’s release. After Massey’s departure, party leaders chose not to name an interim E.D. Instead, party chair Terje Anderson took on many of the duties. As did Brandon Batham, heh.
According to a fact sheet accompanying the press release, Anderson and party treasurer Billi Gosh repeatedly tried to get answers from Batham. They failed to do so.
For more than two months.
Either Batham is a master of deception, or Anderson and Gosh didn’t try hard enough.
Anderson uncovered the non-payroll takings in early July. He shared his findings with precisely two other people — treasurer Gosh and party vice-chair Tess Taylor. “Documentation was carefully gathered,” says the fact sheet in its characteristic passive construction, and on July 17 Anderson, Taylor and the VDP’s attorney confronted Batham with evidence of the $2,931. At this point the payroll fraud hadn’t been detected — not, if you believe the VDP’s statement, due to any dereliction on the part of Anderson or Gosh, but because of Batham’s deft deployment of Jedi mind tricks.
Batham resigned rather than being fired, but the information was kept close to the vest by party leaders.
The payroll theft was discovered near the end of July, when Anderson was finally “able to access the payroll accounts.” Apparently Batham left the books well-hidden? Finally, on August 8 the matter was referred to police, who supposedly asked party leaders to keep it quiet.
That’s the explanation offered for the complete lack of disclosure until Sunday — two days after I spilled the beans.
The fact sheet says that the party has already reformed its system for cutting checks and documenting expenses. In other news, the barn door has been locked after the horse was stolen.
The party also issued a “Memo to the Vermont Democratic Community,” which is copy-and-pasted below. I’ll note a couple of key passages.
After a brief statement of fact, the memo says, “We will be doing everything possible to move beyond this very discouraging set of circumstances and to regain or retain your trust. We will do so in a spirit of humility and honesty.”
OK, well, good luck with that. You’re going to have a hard time convincing folks of your “honesty” when you kept all this information secret until you were essentially forced to reveal it. I’m sure the police asked you to keep it quiet — but did you feel a countervailing obligation to the people’s trust? Perhaps you had a higher duty than to accommodate the police?
The memo closes with a plea to move beyond this scandal because it “cannot distract from the pressing work that lies ahead” — the 2020 election, etc.
Good luck with that, too. Especially if party leaders continue to hew to the line that everyone other than Batham (and perhaps the unnamed Massey) is completely blameless, did their best at all times, and should not face any sort of sanction or, perish forbid, removal from their positions of trust.
Is the party’s executive committee likely to be so forgiving? Or the larger state committee, which includes multiple representatives of each county?
If not, then we’re likely to see some consequences. For starters, new leadership may be needed to restore trust in time for the 2020 campaign. After all, the VDP has had major fundraising troubles for the past three-plus years. Now it’s facing a significant financial scandal that raises questions about oversight of party spending. The party has just given every potential supporter one more big fat reason to say “no” when the VDP comes calling.
Memo to the Vermont Democratic Community
FROM: Terje Anderson, Party Chair; Tess Taylor, Party Vice Chair; Billi Gosh, Party Treasurer
TO: The Vermont Democratic Community
On August 8, 2019, the Vermont Democratic Party filed a formal criminal complaint against Brandon Batham, former Director of Party Operations, for misuse and embezzlement of party funds.
The report alleges Mr. Batham, over the course of calendar year 2019 until his departure from the Party in July, embezzled, fraudulently obtained, or misused approximately $18,500 through various means, including payroll fraud. While these numbers are accurate to the best of our current knowledge, we may not know the total amount stolen until the close of a complete and thorough third-party audit.
This is, certainly, a difficult and painful time for the Party. We believe that an absolutely essential part of addressing the situation is a full and transparent explanation of what happened, and what comes next, to our supporters, donors, and friends. To that end, we hope the attached fact sheet will begin to address your possible questions and concerns.
We will be doing everything possible to move beyond this very discouraging set of circumstances and to regain or retain your trust. We will do so in a spirit of humility and honesty,
But we also want to make sure you know that this cannot distract from the pressing work that lies ahead — the essential business of electing a new President and a new Governor in 2020, electing Democrats at every level, and the urgent need to stand up for the interests of the people of Vermont, the United States and the world. We cannot lose sight of the urgency of that mission.