Tag Archives: Tom Torti

Dept. of Unwarranted Hubris, EB-5 Division

I don’t know what it would take for Patricia Moulton to realize that the jig is up, that business as usual in the EB-5 program simply won’t cut it anymore. But clearly, a major scandal isn’t enough.

The chief of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development put in an eppearance Tuesday before the Senate Finance Committee, where she steadfastly refused to acknowledge that there was anything wrong with Vermont’s EB-5 program. According to VTDigger, one lawmaker characterized her testimony as “unrepentant.” And Sen. Kevin Mullin, not exactly an outside-the-box thinker, said Moulton “kind of scared me today because she was so much of a cheerleader.”

Okay, let’s look at the record. Moulton, following in the footsteps of her predecessor Lawrence Miller and his predecessors in the Douglas Administration, allowed horribly lax oversight of EB-5 projects, thus enabling the (cough, allegedly) fraudulent Jay Peak scheme to proceed for most of a decade. The last two people in charge of overseeing EB-5 left the agency to take jobs with EB-5 developers. The Shumlin administration, belatedly, realized that ACCD was failing to do the job and transferred regulatory oversight to the Department of Financial Regulation.

After all that, the feds raid Jay Peak, haul off the records and computers and change the locks, and issue a massive indictment of Bill Stenger, Ariel Quiros and company, which is a tacit indictment of Vermont’s dereliction of duty.

And now comes Patricia Moulton saying “as secretary of ACCD, my job, absolutely, is to be a cheerleader for the [EB-5] regional center.”

Amazing. How tone-deaf can you be?

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Paul Heintz turns over a rock

For almost a year now, Seven Days’ political editor and columnist has been carrying the ball on Eternal General Bill Sorrell’s squicky-if-not-illegal campaign and fundraising activities, while the rest of Vermont media has been slow-playing the whole thing — either ignoring the story, or helping Sorrell paint it as a partisan witch-hunt. (Their reporting emphasizes VTGOP Vice Chair Brady Toensing’s role, while downplaying or omitting Heintz’ journalism, which provided the substance of Toensing’s complaint.)

And yesterday, Heintz dropped another toothsome tidbit — catching Sorrell’s duplicity regarding a 2014 campaign event that featured Sorrell and then-Lite Gov candidate Dean Corren.

I’m not going chapter-and-verse on that. You should read Heintz’ post for yourself. But I am going to highlight a tangential sidelight in the piece that exposes the seedy underbelly of Vermont politics. Or at least one crucial aspect, regarding the most quietly powerful man in Vermont politics, Dick Mazza.

He is not the most powerful, mind you. But he enjoys by far the highest ratio between official position (just another Senator, cough) and his actual influence.

Among a trove of Sorrell emails obtained by Seven Days was a juicy little number from Tom Torti, the well-connected president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, warning Sorrell that there might be consequences to his appearance with Corren.

“I’m sure you have heard about the level of displeasure Mazza feels about you standing with Corren,” Torti wrote, referring to Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle). “Just wanted to pass on what was mentioned to me.”

Before you chew and swallow, let that roll around on your tongue for a moment. Savor the essence: that Bill Sorrell, the politically untouchable Attorney General, should have reason to fear the wrath of a single State Senator.

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Logrolling In Our Time, Bespoke Contracts Edition

Here’s me doing something I never thought I’d do: recommending a story on the right-wing website Vermont Watchdog that I believe is an actual scoop of some importance.

Vermont Watchdog, for those just joining us, is the Montpelier outpost of a conservative journalistic enterprise that gets its money from the Usual Suspects, i.e. the Kochs et al. The site’s usual content is vastly overblown at best, completely off the mark at worst. But this time, VTW’s Bruce Parker got hold of something.

Business development groups in Vermont are demanding to know how a $100,000 appropriation for fostering business with Quebec was awarded exclusively to Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, according to emails obtained by Vermont Watchdog.

The appropriation in question was included in S.138, an economic development bill that passed the Legislature this year. The bill’s language does not mention LCRCC; it simply says the $100,000 will go to the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development “to implement a targeted marketing and business expansion initiative for Quebec-based businesses…”

One could reasonably infer that once the bill was signed into law, ACCD would fashion a means of using the money for the intended purpose. But apparently there was a backdoor deal to simply hand the 100 G’s over to the LCRCC, whose Executive Director, Tom Torti, held high positions in the Dean and Douglas administrations, and was recently referred to by Seven Days’ Paul Heintz as one of “the state’s traditional power brokers,” whose counsel, sez Heintz, would be invaluable to potential candidates for governor.

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Shap the Triangulator

“It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” 

                      –Lyndon B. Johnson

ICYMI, House Speaker Shap Smith has done something a bit unusual on two key issues, education funding and economic development. He solicited public input, and created special brainstorming committees to evaluate ideas.

Let's… Make… a Deal!

Let’s… Make… a Deal!

The existence of these committees is interesting enough; it smacks of a legislative leader angling for the bigger stage. This process amounts to an informal, back-office policy shop, and gives Smith  a very central role in crafting policy instead of, say, waiting for Governor Shumlin to initiate. His work with the committees also can’t help but endear him to some pretty prominent people.

More evidence of ambition can be found the makeup of the two groups. The education panel included ten current and former lawmakers: Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Good for building nonpartisan street cred.

The economy group included many of The Great And Good of Vermont’s business community, including Betsy Bishop of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, Tom Torti of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, and (Lord help us) Bruce Lisman of Campaign for Vermont Prosperity. The chair, Paul Ralston, is a former Democratic legislator who alienated many of his caucus mates during his single term*, and ended by partnering with Republican Rep. Heidi Scheuermann in Vision to Action Vermont, a PAC that’s just about as nonpartisan as Campaign for Vermont.

*I’ve heard him described as a junior-grade version of Peter Galbraith for his self-centered ways. Love his coffee, though.  

The group also includes a healthy share of relatively progressive businessfolks, like Andrew Savage of All Earth Renewables, Andrea Cohen of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, and Cairn Cross of FreshTracks Capital. But there was no one from the labor movement, and no one from any progressive or environmental organization.

It smacks of triangulation, the favored strategery of upwardly mobile Democrats and the bane of liberals. And it smacks of building networks of support among the deep-pocketed donor class. Which tends to lead to centrist policymaking, not to mention one of Gov. Shumlin’s favorite pastime, kicking the hippies.

I’m not ready to call Smith a sellout. A recent report on VPR lists some ideas emerging from the job-creation committee, and they actually sound pretty good: identifying ways to unlock capital for small businesses and startups, matching technical-school curricula with the needs of Vermont tech companies. Also, Cross is quoted as saying that Vermont’s business climate has more to do with quality of life and a clean environment than the old bromides of tax breaks and deregulation.

That sounds like a relatively progressive approach to economic development. And truth be told, there’s a need for a strategy that cuts through the standard liberal/business debate — that encourages job growth without abandoning liberal principles.

For instance, there is probably room for — and please don’t shoot me — some modest reform in the permitting process. The very phrase “permit reform” has been uttered by so many Republicans for so many years, it raises immediate hackles in the liberal community. Can we find a way to ease the process for the kinds of enterprise that create good jobs and contribute to our economic vitality without simply greasing the skids for strip malls and subdivisions? We probably can, and maybe — just maybe — Smith is trying to break the usual pattern and find a third way.

I’m willing to wait and see what emerges before passing judgment on the process and on Smith’s motivations.

As for the political question: Is Shap Smith running for governor? I don’t know. And at this point, he probably doesn’t either. But he’s certainly developing relationships and laying the groundwork for a future run, should he decide to do so.

Free offer: Dinner’s on me

VPR’s John Dillon has captured and preserved a lovely bit of flamboyant hypocrisy from the fine folks at Your Chambers of Commerce. On the one hand:

Tom Torti, president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, told lawmakers last week that Vermont’s brand is defined by its clean environment. A polluted lake hurts the state economically because visitors will chose not to return, he said.

On the other hand:

A day later, Katie Taylor, a lobbyist for Torti’s organization was in a House committee. She delivered a different message.

…Taylor made clear the Lake Champlain chamber will fight a tax increase aimed at the tourism industry to pay for water pollution controls.

,,, Kendal Melvin of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce also opposed the half-cent rooms and meals tax increase. When one lawmaker asked her to recommend alternatives, she offered nothing.

Yeah, well, thanks for nothing.

Which brings me to my Free Offer. The first lobbyist who accepts financial responsibility, in whole or in part, for a problem or issue facing Vermont, will be treated to dinner by me at the restaurant of their choice. Hen of the Wood? Great. Leunig’s? Fine. J. Morgan’s? Predictable but acceptable. Slum it at Al’s Frys? Outstanding.

To meet my conditions, the statement has to go something like this: “We realize we have a real problem with _________ in Vermont, and we accept that our [industry/company/group/granfalloon] plays a part in solving this problem. We are willing to bear our share of the costs of ___________.” You can add as many bells and whistles as you like.

The lobbyist must represent an entity with “skin in the game” — exposure to increased costs in taxes or fees. This, unfortunately, disqualifies most public-interest groups.

The statement must be delivered in testimony to a relevant legislative committee, and submitted to theVPO in transcript or audio recording.

Caveats: Judging is by theVPO. Judge’s decisions are final. There will be a limit on the bar tab — a reasonable one.

This offer is good until the legislature adjourns for the year. C’mon, lobbyists — do the right thing, and earn yourself a free feed in the process!

Here’s someone who doesn’t think Scott Milne will win

And it’s a guy who might well be sympathetic to Milne’s quest:

That’s Tom Torti, longtime President of the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce. And the breakfast comes four days after the legislature chooses the next governor.

I suppose it’s theoretically possible that this is a farewell event, but given the billing as a Legislative Breakfast, I’m safe in assuming otherwise.

Sorry, Governor Milne. Guess your invite got lost in the mail.