Last Thursday was New Year’s Eve, the beginning of a long holiday weekend. What better time for a politician to dump potentially damaging news?
And yep, there was Attorney General T.J. Donovan issuing not one, but two press releases on Thursday afternoon the first at 2:31 and the second at 3:14. Each showcased the less progressive, and reflexively law ‘n order, side of him.
First came news that Donovan was dropping of multiple serious felony charges against former St. Albans police officer Zachary Pigeon and his father Allen, for allegedly removing a woman from her home and assaulting her. The woman had come forward with accusations that Zachary had sexually assaulted her some years ago when she was a child. Donovan made the decision because he could not “meet the elements of the charged crimes beyond a reasonable doubt at this time.”
This case had been filed by the Franklin County State’s Attorney, who apparently saw grounds for prosecution. But the SA punted the case up to Donovan due to conflicts of interest. And now Donovan is tossing it out the window.
The exact opposite tack was taken in the second press release, which touted a state Supreme Court ruling in the case of State v. Alta Gurung, which means that a new competency hearing will be conducted for Gurung.
In part 1, I brought your attention to some appalling facts about Vermont’s lack of oversight for rental housing. Today we turn to three separate articles concerning nursing homes and the coronavirus that reveal further inadequacy in governance. The first is about an apparently toothless settlement with a for-profit senior facility. The second and third detail the toll Covid-19 is taking on some of our most vulnerable Vermonters.
The Intercept, where Glenn Greenwald used to hang his hat before he went batshit, has shone a fresh light on last spring’s worst outbreak in Vermont — at Burlington Health and Rehab, owned and operated by the troubled Genesis HealthCare chain.
Turns out that only weeks before the pandemic struck, Attorney General TJ Donovan had reached a settlement with Genesis over “allegations of neglect” that led to three injuries and one death. That settlement did little or nothing to improve the situation, and within months, 12 BH&R residents had died of Covid-19.
Under terms of the settlement, proudly announced in the customary AGO press release, three Vermont-located Genesis facilities were to pay a fine and hire a Patient Care Coordinator for the three locations plus an independent monitor to oversee quality of care. Was it enough?
“It’s really baffling that the settlement did not include some type of staffing requirements,” said Brian Lee, the executive director of Families for Better Care, a nonprofit advocating for tighter regulation of nursing homes. “Has [Donovan] arrested anybody? Has he prosecuted anybody? Has anybody gone to jail? No. The settlement should have included a requirement for RN staffing. They were short-staffed prior to the incidents and short-staffed after. It’s pretty negligent on the AG’s office to not include that,” said Lee. “The quality of nursing homes is dependent on staffing.”
You can probably guess the next bit. According to federal regulatory records, Genesis failed to increase staffing to recommended levels. Donovan agreed to let Genesis do the hiring, and there was apparently no follow-through by the state to ensure full compliance. This is a problem with Donovan’s negotiating tactics, and also an issue for state regulators. When a facility is enough of a bad actor to trigger enforcement action, shouldn’t the Human Services Agency perhaps provide some extra scrutiny?
I guess not. Well, I can’t say for sure. But what I can say is that whatever Donovan and AHS did, it wasn’t enough. Let’s remember that, the next time Donovan puts out a self-congratulatory press release.
As promised, my lukewarm takes on the Vermont election results in the customary slash lazy columnist “Winners and Losers” style.
Winner Winner Chicken Dinner: Gov. Phil Scott. Highest vote total in history for any gubernatorial candidate. Rode his adequate handling of the pandemic to a lopsided victory over a game but under-resourced Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman. More than half of the Joe Biden voters crossed party lines to elect Scott.
Just to pin that down, Scott unofficially has 248,248 votes while Zuckerman failed to crack six figures. Biden finished with 242,680. Or compare Scott to his Republican ticketmates: Donald Trump took 112,507 votes, Miriam Berry (sacrificial lamb to Peter Welch) 95,763. The voters returned lopsided (and only marginally diminished) Dem/Prog majorities to the Legislature.
Scott also saw the Dems’ chances of overriding his frequent vetoes take a hit, with the loss of a few House seats. Every single seat matters when you’re trying to get to 100. Plus, the Dems and Progs will have to identify new House leadership. A new Speaker needs at least a year to learn the ropes.
If there’s a formula for defeating Phil Scott, the Democrats have yet to identify it. Hell, this year they kinda stopped trying. Which will come back to bite them if Scott makes a run for the next U.S. Senate opening. Successor to Bernie Sanders? There’s some bitter irony for you. (He’d have to relinquish the governorship in 2021 to take on Pat Leahy or [insert Democrat here] in 2022. I don’t see him doing that.)
Losers: Capital-P Progressives and their infrastructure. The good news for the Progs is that they managed to add a seat in the House. Otherwise, 2020 has been a disaster. Tim Ashe bombed out in the LG primary, Zuckerman cratered last night, they lost their two House caucus leaders, Robin Chesnut-Tangerman and Diana Gonzalez*, and Sen. Chris Pearson continues to be the least popular member of the Chittenden delegation.
*Note: After she announced she was stepping away from the Legislature, Gonzalez was replaced by Selene Colburn in the deputy leader role. So it’s incorrect to say that the Progs lost both leaders in the election, although they did lose both during the course of the year.
Until proven otherwise, Bernie Sanders has no coattails. There is no evidence that he can push a Progressive or progressive to victory in Vermont. If he’s building a legacy or a movement that will survive his personal appeal, he ain’t doing it here.
I also have to ask: What exactly does Rights & Democracy accomplish? They spend a lot of money, much of it from Sts. Ben and Jerry, to no visible effect. I see little sign that they’re building a movement that can influence Vermont politics. Or New Hampshire politics, for that matter, since R&D is a twin-state organization. The NH Dems held serve in Congress, but failed to take down Gov. Chris Sununu and are on track for minority status in the NH House and Senate.
I’m sure the progressive Twitterverse will be all over me for this, but look, I’d love to live in a world where we’ve just elected Bernie or (my choice) Elizabeth Warren and we won 55 U.S. Senate seats and we were poised to create the Green Economy and enact universal health care and some serious regulation of the financial sector and court reforms and voting rights protections. But we don’t. And I see no objective evidence to support the notion that there’s an invisible army of progressive voters just waiting for the right “messaging” to get them stampeding to the polls.
After the jump: Room on the Democratic ladder, limited gains for the VTGOP, and more.
The official response to the Slate Ridge “training facility” in West Pawlet has been… well, take your pick. Pitiful? Sure. Laughably inadequate? Yep. Chickenshit? Call it like you see it.
State officials have been “monitoring” the situation for over a year, but didn’t actually say anything in public until VTDigger published its report last week. And now they’re stumbling all over themselves, offering justifications for a year-plus of inaction.
Meanwhile, the people of West Pawlet live in fear. As I wrote on Twitter, now they know how Kiah Morris feels.
Here’s the gist of it, as far as I’m concerned. The system has failed the people of West Pawlet just as it failed Morris. In saying so, I’m assuming that the purpose of having laws and enforcement agencies is to keep people safe, allowing them to live their lives in peace and security.
On the other side of the coin, constitutional rights do not extend to instilling fear in your neighbors. A community is a collection of free individuals — but there must be a sense of polity, of common purpose, of some level of respect for the well-being of your neighbors as well as yourself. The denizens of Slate Ridge are violating the social contract that binds us all together.
And if there’s no law that can be applied to this case, then maybe we need some new laws.
The avalanche of general election debates has begun. Yesterday’s Democratic LG forum (watchable at the link) was the first, I think, and the predominant theme was message discipline. Meaning, if you’d set up a drinking game for each candidate, you would have been dead before closing time. Take a drink when
Molly Gray says “Born on a farm in Vermont”
Ralph Corbo says “Military-Industrial Complex”
Scott Milne says “Phil Scott”
All three participants stuck to their scripts. Candidates were not pushed out of their comfort zones. There was only a brief hint of an attack line. Actually, the harshest attack was Corbo’s slam on Vermont’s establishment media for barring minor-party candidates from their debates. More on that later.
For the two main contenders, a boilerplate performance warrants a different grade. Milne has never been disciplined in his political life, but he stuck closely to his self-positioning as an experienced businessman and moderate Republican who can effectively partner with Gov. Phil Scott. A solid if uninspiring performance. Kudos, I assume, to his campaign manager, Sen. Corey Parent, for taming the beast.
Gray turned in a similar outing. But for her, that’s kind of a disappointment. She has yet to advance her presentation from the very beginning of her campaign, when she leaned heavily on personal biography. Those who view her as an empty vessel could point to this debate as evidence. It wasn’t inspiring, merely competent. In terms of compelling presentation, she didn’t establish separation from Milne. As she will have to do, if the VPR/VPBS poll is anywhere near accurate.
By the standards of minor-party fixtures like Cris Ericson and Emily Peyton, Corbo was surprisingly coherent. He had his talking points and expressed them clearly. Of course, they were the talking points of an unreconstructed hippie, but there was no hint of unrestrained ranting. Except for the media part.
After the Legislature passed H.688, the Global Warming Solutions Act, there were bits of rose-colored speculation that Gov. Phil Scott might see his way clear to signing the thing. After all, he’s apparently sailing to re-election; he has no reason to fear a revolt from the Republican Party’s sad, atrophied right wing. This might have been an occasion to cement his reputation as a caring moderate, perhaps in anticipation of a future run for Congress.
But no, in the words of a thousand uncreative ledes, he “wielded his veto pen.” And the reasons were utterly predictable, and absolutely in line with his consistent position on climate change: He acknowledges the scope of the challenge, but refuses to support any real interventions. And just for added spice, he threw in one of his spurious constitutional arguments against the bill.
Scott’s approach to climate change is to oppose any measure that would impose enforceable goals before the safely-distant year 2050, cost a single Vermonter a single dime, or inconvenience any Vermonter with mandatory changes in energy usage. His vision of achieving our 2050 goal depends heavily on market forces, future technological advances, and a whole lot of water power from the green-but-otherwise-problematic flooding of First Nations land by Hydro Quebec.
Today I’ll tell you a tale of how Vermont Democrats owned themselves into a Phil Scott Senatorship.
We pick it up from the present day, when the Dems have clearly waved the white flag on the 2020 gubernatorial race. In fact, many of them believe Scott deserves a third term because of how he’s handled the pandemic.
They are entitled to their opinion. But they may not like the consequences headed their way.
Let’s assume that Scott wins re-election by double digits, further cementing his reputation as a moderate who can win elections in solid blue Vermont — enhancing his unique value to national Republican forces looking to pick off a safe blue Senate seat.
At the same time, Joe Biden wins the presidency and the Democrats take a majority in the U.S. Senate. Biden opens the floodgates of federal assistance for fighting Covid-19 and rebuilding the economy. Pat Leahy becomes chair of Senate Appropriations, where he can make sure Vermont gets a healthy slice of the pie.
This makes Scott’s third term much easier, as he doesn’t have to close massive budget gaps. But he decides against seeking a fourth term in 2022, and departs the scene as a noble figure who steered the Good Ship Vermont through stormy seas.
After the jump: Governor Donovan, Dem disunity, Bernie the retiree, and Senator Phil Scott.
The tiny city of Vergennes is in an uproar, largely due to disagreements over its police department, which is led by George Merkel, the guy pictured above. Dude does love him some tactical gear, doesn’t he?
You wouldn’t know from his outlandish getup that he keeps the peace in a city of only 2,601 with vanishingly small rates of violent crime. You wouldn’t know that the vast majority of police calls are for things like noise complaints. I bet all that gear comes in handy when there’s a cat up a tree, eh, Chief?
You probably could guess that Merkel has come under fire for unapologetically regressive policing. I mean, he looks like he’s about one second away from Tasing the cameraman.
It’s bad enough that Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton filed a report accusing Merkel of multiple misdeeds, to wit: (1) signing official documents with “patently false information,” (2) knowingly failing to report demographic data on VPD traffic stops, and (3) falsely reporting work time and collecting double pay as a result.
(Newton’s report originated in a February meeting that included then-Vergennes mayor Jeff Fritz, an unnamed city alderman, and a sheriff’s officer who formerly served under Merkel. The four, according to VTDigger, “described Merkel as being out of control.”)
Never fear! Attorney General TJ Donovan, the persistent protector of law enforcement, has reviewed a Vermont State Police probe of Newton’s report and concluded — you’ll be shocked, I know — that “there is no evidence to suggest that Chief Merkel acted with intent to defraud” in reporting his work time, and that this concludes concludes “all ongoing investigations regarding Chief Merkel.”
Donovan’s press release — a Friday afternoon newsdump — made no mention of the other two allegations against Merkel. The most serious, to me, is the failure to report demographic data on traffic stops. The Vergennes PD, after all, has a record of racial bias in traffic policing that’s among the worst in Vermont. So there’s a real bad odor around Merkel’s failure to report pertinent data on nearly two-thirds of all his force’s traffic stops in a two-year period.
I guess Donovan, or the VSP, ignored that? The press release is silent.
Donovan’s inaction leaves the city of Vergennes a broken place. Some residents fear the police and want Merkel gone; others support their longtime chief to the hilt.
This may seem outlandish, and uncharacteristic of small-town Vermont society with its vaunted community ties and cherished slash fetishized Town Meeting Day traditions. But there are other Merkels out there. The only questions are, how many? And, since nobody in officialdom seems willing to face this issue, what do we do about it?
Keeping in mind that every unjustified, race-inspired traffic stop is a stab in the heart to our BIPOC neighbors, a disincentive for people to relocate to Vermont, and a stain on our state’s reputation.
When outgoing state Rep. Mary Sullivan agreed to emcee this morning’s post-primary Democratic unity rally, I doubt that she realized she was taking her life into her hands. But there, right in the middle of her introductory remarks, came a-tumblin’ the state flag of Vermont, crashing down within inches of her head, rattling the podium on its way to the earth.
Undaunted, Sullivan continued to speak. Although afterward, there might have been some sharp words for whoever set up that flag.
That wasn’t the only cock-up of the morning. The microphone was not correctly tied into the Facebook Live feed of the proceedings, so most of the speakers could barely be heard. A note must also be passed to whoever wrangled that podium, which was too tall for a couple of the speakers — Sen. Debbie Ingram and President Pro Tem In Waiting Becca Balint. They looked like old drivers peeking over the wheel to get a glimpse of the road.
The speakers’ list was comprehensive. The winning and losing candidates for governor and lieutenant governor were there (except for Carcajou), as were the rest of the party’s candidates for statewide office, U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, designated hitters for our two U.S. Senators, and legislative caucus leaders.
All the speakers touted unity. Not all were specific about their calls. In fact, it wasn’t until the sixth speaker that someone actually endorsed the party’s nominee for governor, Progressive/Democratic Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman. It was Attorney General T.J. Donovan who broke the ice, “proudly” endorsing Zuckerman and lite-guv nominee Molly Gray and devoting the bulk of his remarks to praise for the Democratic ticket.
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?