Tag Archives: TJ Donovan

The Resolute Gatekeeper

Gee, and I thought I was done using this image.

Before adjourning, the Vermont Legislature put a down payment on justice reform by passing S.219, which would ban chokeholds and similar… uhh… “restraint techniques” (such a bloodless descriptor) and require that state police wear body cameras. The bill awaits action by Gov. Phil Scott.

The chokehold thing illustrates a broader problem with law enforcement practices. We’ve seen time and again that officers are quick to employ chokeholds and pile on top of prone suspects and use whatever the term of art is for “knee on the neck,” as well as Tasers, pepper spray, rubber projectiles, tear gas, flashbangs and other sublethal weapons. Sublethal but still painful and dangerous, and far too often employed on peaceful protesters and suspects who are already under control. Or on bystanders, such as the reporter who lost an eye to a rubber-bullet impact during a Minneapolis protest.

But that’s a sermon for another Sunday. I’m here to point out a big problem with S.219 and other well-meaning proposals for reining in the excesses of the police. That’s the guy who makes the decisions on whether or not to bring charges — Attorney General TJ Donovan.

The same Donovan who, until this month according to VPR, has examined 18 excessive-force cases involving police officers — and brought charges in only one of those cases. The same Donovan who’s been frantically trying to get ahead of the crowd on justice reform so he can show “leadership.”

But beyond his nearly universal backing of questionable police conduct, there’s the newly reopened case of Joel Daugreilh, the former St. Albans police officer who, in 2017, pepper sprayed a suspect who was already handcuffed and secured in a cell.

Daugreilh’s supervisor determined that the action was “clearly over the line.” The city referred the case to Donovan’s office for possible criminal charges. And he chose not to bring any.

Well, not at the time. He reopened his probe in January, just after VPR requested records of the case. Convenient timing, no?

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When Pigs Fly

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the wave of ensuing protests, Vermont’s political leadership is united in calling for criminal justice reform.

They are also united in minimizing expectations for actual, y’know, results.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Law enforcement has always gotten a full, respectful, sometimes dreamy-eyed reception in legislative committees. Police chiefs, sheriffs and state’s attorneys always wield strong influence when it comes to any issue that touches on their work, from criminal justice to substance abuse to cannabis to the deadly perils of Happy Hour.

(This post concerns our top Democratic and Progressive leaders, not Republican Gov. Phil Scott. He has made all the right noises, and I’m sure he will endorse modest reforms. But the expectations ought to be higher for the D’s and P’s.)

No surprise then, that Dem/Prog Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe and Dem House Speaker Mitzi Johnson have already put the kibosh on any talk of cutting the Vermont State Police budget. Ashe, who believes it’s time for him to move up the ladder to the lieutenant governorship, offered this in lieu of leadership: “It’s one thing to say that, to communicate as part of this national discussion, but how you actually implement such a proposal is not a one size fits all.”

Spoken like a politician fleeing a hot-button issue.

Johnson asserted that Vermont has “a very different law enforcement structure than a lot of other states,” so those notorious one-size-fits-all solutions just won’t work here.

Well, I’d like to know more about how Vermont’s structure of state police, county sheriffs and municipal police departments, whose officers are armed with lethal weapons and who are primarily responsible for responding to a variety of public safety situations, is so dramatically different from the police structure elsewhere.

And whose officers have a track record of disproportionately stopping or arresting people of color and of using deadly force in dealing with the mentally ill.

Eh, I don’t think out “structure” is so different. Johnson is simply making another meaningless callout to Vermont exceptionalism.

As for Attorney General T.J. Donovan, he has tweeted that America’s criminal justice system is “broken,” and the time to fix it is “now.” But his proposed fixes are from the lipstick-on-a-pig bargain bin.

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A complete failure of justice

Gotta hand it to USA TODAY (all caps, as God intended) for uncovering the distressing case of Leonard Forte, a retired cop from New York state who was accused and convicted in 1988 of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old Vermont girl. His conviction was overturned on appeal, and that’s when things got weird. In 1995, facing a second trial, Forte claimed he was on death’s door and that the stress of a trial would surely kill him.

And then… nothing.

For almost 25 years.

Well, not entirely “nothing”. The case would occasionally get another look, Forte would claim ill health, and back into the deep freeze it went.

If USA TODAY is to be believed, the prosecutor overseeing the case — longtime assistant attorney general David Tartter — wasn’t exactly devoting a lot of energy to it. “Neglect” seems the best descriptor for his approach.

Meanwhile, the accuser is now 45 years old and living with the consequences of the assault. Forte is 78 and still claims to be dying, but has been enjoying a pretty decent retirement in Florida. And the chances of bringing him to justice appeared faint, thanks to this:

The USA TODAY Network found that Vermont officials have destroyed materials key to the prosecution of Forte, including most of the original trial record. The mistaken destruction of transcripts and court audio recordings appears to be due to the unprecedented age of the case, by far the oldest open prosecution in Vermont and certainly one of the oldest in the country where the defendant is not a fugitive.

… Michele Dinko, the alleged victim, said in a recent interview that Tartter has expressed to her that he has little hope left of prosecuting Forte. Dinko said Tartter also told her privately that having the case loom over Forte for so many decades is its own kind of punishment.

That’d be a hard “no,” Mr. Tartter.

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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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Bookshelf: Three Authors in Search of a Scumbag

There are two new books about the Harvey Weinstein scandal: She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, and Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow. Both are worth reading, for different reasons.

The three authors spent months and months uncovering Weinstein’s criminal sexual conduct, despite the film producer’s thorough, expensive and sometimes illegal efforts to thwart their work.

Oh, I guess I should say “alleged” criminal conduct, since Weinstein won’t go on trial until next month. But c’mon, the guy’s a scumbag. Throughout his movie career, he used his power to exploit women and destroy their lives and careers. These books remind you of exactly how evil he was.

Kantor and Twohey are reporters for the New York Times. Their book is more straightforward, and is a better primer on the scandal and how it turbocharged the #MeToo movement. If you’re going to read one book on this subject, make it She Said.

But after the Times published their Weinstein stories, they moved on to other assignments. The last section of the book, in fact, is about the Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford saga, which the two women also covered for the Times.

Farrow’s book goes deeper into the Weinstein case because he continued to follow the story for The New Yorker after the original stories were published. He also explores the complicity of the media and the legal system in helping Weinstein continue his predatory activities for years. And he exposes the efforts of an international web of operatives who worked for Weinstein in trying to uncover dirt on reporters and victims.

Catch and Kill also, somewhat problematically, presents as something akin to a spy novel. Take this author photo from the back cover.

The Spy Who Reported On Me
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Donovan Knew

The Vanishing Wunderkind

If there was any doubt about whether Attorney General T.J. Donovan might run for governor in 2020, he has just eliminated it.

Not by making an announcement, but by making it all but impossible to get the Democratic nomination. The guy’s so radioactive right now, he ought to just lay low for at least two more years.

Because it turns out he played a major role in concealing the scandal at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility. We know this thanks to Seven Days‘ Paul Heintz, who has done the near-impossible. He uncovered a major scandal in state government — and then, one week later, he has substantially advanced the story, at a time when every media outlet in Vermont is pursuing this thing. Or should be.

Today’s piece reveals that pretty much everyone in state government knew about widespread abuse at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility long before it became public, including officials who loudly expressed their horror and astonishment that there were problems at the prison.

Including, most notably for our purposes, T.J. Donovan, who has known about systematic problems at the prison for two and a half years.

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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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Where is TJ going?

Much speculation has surrounded Democratic Attorney General TJ Donovan this year. Will he run for governor in 2020, or won’t he?

Maybe the real question ought to be, Which primary would he contest?

Donovan has taken a couple more rightward steps in recent days. Last week, Gov. Phil Scott directed his officials to allow people inspecting state documents to take photographs or otherwise record images without incurring any fees. Afterward, Donovan doubled down on his position that fees should be charged to anyone getting copies of public records — whether the copies were made by state employees or not.

Congratulations, TJ. You’re now officially to the right of our Republican governor on a key transparency issue.

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VT Dems go trolling for candidates

So, according to VTDigger, the Vermont Democratic Party is conducting a poll to see how well Attorney General TJ Donovan and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman would do in hypothetical matchups with Gov. Phil Scott.

I have no inside information on this, but here’s how it looks from my view.

It’s a sign of desperation and a waste of money. Also, Donovan and Zuckerman are still Hamletting it up.

Let’s take desperation first. I’m assuming that party leaders initiated this poll, not Donovan or Zuckerman. If so, it says that leadership — whatever their public protestations — fears what will happen if former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe is the party’s nominee, because (a) they think she’d lose badly and (b) might actually hurt their prospects in legislative races.

Well, it’s really (b) they’re most concerned with. The experiences of Peter Clavelle, Scudder Parker, Gaye Symington, Sue Minter and Christine Hallquist show that the party is perfectly content to toss a nominee off the sled when the wolves are closing in.

They’d much rather go to battle in 2020 with Donovan or Zuckerman leading the charge. Which is understandable, given that Holcombe is untested in the political arena and virtually unknown outside policy circles. But when party leaders are willing to spend scarce party resources — at a time when they’re not exactly swimming in money — they reveal a certain unseemly desperation. This is a Hail Mary pass: If the poll shows unexpected weakness for Scott, or significant strength for one of the two Hamlets, then one or both might be enticed to make a run.

Of course, the poll is unlikely to provide that kind of evidence. Scott has done nothing to diminish his popularity — nor have legislative Dems done anything to push him in that direction — and his two potential rivals are much less well-known statewide. (Those of us inside the #vtpoli bubble vastly overestimate the public’s engagement in state politics.) Donovan lacks a policy profile outside of law enforcement, and both men lack any significant record outside of their jobs.

Both are better positioned than Holcombe to overcome Scott’s lead because they are statewide officeholders, and that’s by far the best launch pad for a gubernatorial bid. (The last six Vermont governors were either statewide officeholders or top legislative leaders before assuming the top job.) Both also have better fundraising potential: Donovan because of his political lineage and national connections, and Zuckerman as the state’s leading Bernie Bro.

Right now, I doubt their poll numbers would be much different from Generic Democrat. What they do have is a chance at being competitive, after running a vigorous statewide campaign for a solid year. So I don’t expect the poll will provide any real insight. Hence, waste of money.

And if Donovan and Zuckerman, in the middle of very successful political careers, lack the self-confidence to make that decision without a marginally meaningful poll, then they’re really not cut out to carry the banner.