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October 30, 2008

Douglas' Free Ride Rolls On *UPDATED*

Took time to scan a few Vermont news sites this morning after learning that a story "Fair Game" broke two weeks ago was behind yesterday's press conference by gubernatorial candidate and Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington.

Two weeks ago, I reported that Republican Gov. Jim Douglas has yet to reimburse the state for any of the travel costs incurred by his full-time state trooper while he criss-crosses the state glad-handing Vermonters as he fights to keep his job.

This was a break from his predecessor, Gov. Howard Dean, who did reimburse at least some of these costs. Did he reimburse them all? Probably not, but Douglas has chosen to take a more cavalier attitude — stick taxpayers with the bill.

Yesterday, Symington called on Douglas to repay those costs. Here is a snippet from prepared remarks she distributed:

"It’s galling that at a time when an increasing number of Vermonters are losing their jobs, Jim Douglas is using Vermonters' tax dollars to campaign to keep his own. At a time when Jim Douglas has cut vital services for Vermonters he is helping himself to more of our tax dollars to campaign on the public's dime.  He needs to give the money back.

Is it a lot of money?  The truth is we don't know — and the governor and his campaign have made it clear they have no intention of saying.  But it's the principle that matters.  When the governor uses tax dollars to campaign, he's not protecting taxpayers, he's exploiting them."

The Douglas campaign responded with a "flashback" news item that raised questions about whether Dean should repay taxpayers for the full cost of his security detail. In other words, not just travel expenses, but his wages, too. The headline read: "Flashback – Dean:  He Has No Intention of Reimbursing the State"

The story was by Jack Hoffman and Tracy Schmaler of the Vermont Press Bureau, and it came at a time when Dean was weighing a presidential bid and was out of the state almost as much as he was in. That's not what my column focused on at all.

And, given this response, one has to wonder if Douglas is thinking ahead to 2012. Maybe a Pallin/Douglas ticket? Not likely, as Douglas has backed down from his gushing support of Palin.

Douglas' campaign manager Dennise Casey brushed aside the complaints, claiming they're merely a sign that Symington's campaign is getting desperate because of her low poll numbers. Ya think?

Casey also said the governor is governor no matter what he's doing, and it's hard to separate everything out. “No matter where the governor travels to, church on Sunday, a campaign event, he is still the governor,” Casey told the Burlington Free Press.

She also told the Associated Press that some of Dean's campaign finance reports didn't seem credible, and it's possible he didn't reimburse the state for all incurred costs.

That's kinda funny coming from a campaign that hasn't reimbursed the state one dime. But, it's a good diversion from the real issue being raised.

The Symington campaign was quick to reply to Casey's obfuscation:

"This is the second opportunity this month Jim Douglas has had to come clean, explain himself to Vermonters, apologize for misusing public funds and pay back the money.  It is inexcusable that he refuses to do any of these things and continues to hide behind his campaign staff instead of answering these questions himself."

That statement came from Michael Carrese, Symington's campaign spokesman.

Is this the kind of stuff that pisses off voters enough to make them not want to vote for Douglas? Probably not.

But for lawmakers who have long been complaining about the governor using tax dollars for PR this may give them pause if the vote heads to the Legislature.

You'd think a candidate who can raise $1.25 million could cut a check to the state for $5,000-$10,000 ; that would more than cover it.

But the Douglas campaign doesn't thinks that's necessary. Remember, our report also pointed out that Casey — who previously worked as an aide to the governor on the taxpayers' nickel — held onto and used her special state access card for months after leaving state employ. Some of those trips to the Pavilion Building (which houses the governor's official state office), were after business hours.

Birds of a feather ...

The Symington campaign claims Douglas may be violating state policies, but no word on that charge yet from Attorney General Bill Sorrell. As a side note, Sorrell enacted some of these personnel policies when he was secretary of administration under Dean.

We'll keep you posted on what we find out.

In the meantime, here's a rundown of media coverage on Vermont's version of Trooper-gate:


Burlington Free Press

Rutland Herald/Times Argus

Associated Press

Vermont Public Radio


For a fun overview and discussion on the topic check out Green Mountain Daily. On Monday, a diarist there made an open plea for GMD readers to call on the media to cover the story, since no campaign and/or media outlet responded to my "Fair Game" report. Mission accomplished?

And, lest you think only Symington's campaign uses some of this reporter's investigative work, think again.

On Tuesday, the Douglas campaign issued a broadside against Independent Anthony Pollina and his role with the Vermont Milk Company. They cited my "Fair Game" column from August which looked at how Pollina walked away from the company as it struggled to survive in order to run for governor.

Just shows I'm an equal opportunity columnist.

UPDATE: Attorney General Bill Sorrell just called to say it's unclear whether Gov. Douglas’ use of public resources while campaigning is a violation of state law.

“The bottom line is that campaign finance laws don’t speak expressly to the point of whether or not the governor, or any elected official, has to reimburse the state,” Sorrell said.

Sorrell was asked to look into Douglas' failure to reimburse the state for campaign-related expenses by Nate Freeman, of Northfield. Freeman, if you recall, ran and lost in the Democratic primary for Lt. Governor.

Sorrell said he'll respond to Freeman’s complaint, but it doesn’t appear as if any action can be taken by his office. That said, Sorrell offers this advice for pols wondering whether or not to reimburse the state for political campaigning:

“Just do the right thing — to take the legalese right out of it.”

Determining how much of a trip is attributable to a campaign and how much to official duties is up to the state official in question to decide.

“For example, if the governor is riding down to the opening of a campaign headquarters in Brattleboro and while he’s in the car is on the phone doing state work and reviewing papers and stops in Bellows Falls for a ribbon-cutting as governor and then continues to campaign headquarters — how much is attributable to politics and how much to official duties?” Sorrell said. “And where do you divide the line and how much do you pay? It’s not clear and the law certainly isn’t clear. For Howard Dean, he used his gut-level barometer and if it was clearly and primarily political he’d do the reimbursement.”

In his complaint, Freeman said it appears Douglas has violated the state’s executive Code of Ethics. But  Sorrell said the code applies to gubernatorial appointees, and only the governor or his designee can enforce it, not the courts.

That said, Sorrell continued, pols should use common sense and consider whether an action “passes the straight face test.”

Freeman said that while Douglas may not have broken the law, he "has clearly violated his own Code of Ethics. Amazingly Douglas is now questioning the integrity of former Governor Dean, who reimbursed thousands of dollars to Vermont taxpayers over 5 election cycles.  The question of integrity lands at the feet of Governor Douglas as he refuses to accept his responsibility to and continues to pass the blame to anyone else he can accuse."

Maybe no one pays attention to you because all you do is sit on your ass and look at blogs instead of doing real work. Freyne! Help us!

You think Sorrell's going to run with this? Like he ran with the Pollina campaign finance story which even the Freeps acknowledged left them both (Sorrell and Markowitz) with egg on their faces. Some people said they were playing partisan politics. Does that click with the snoozing reporter at 7D? Symington is such a bad candidate she can't even get this story across and give it any legs. It's like when the governor came out with his economic stimulus package so late in the session. Did she have an alternate plan? No, she was mad that the governor had a plan. And then she helped weaken Act 250 "to move things forward". Just like she help Douglas enact the two vote mandate "to move things forward". Sorry but she's backward.

“No matter where the governor travels to, church on Sunday, a campaign event, he is still the governor,” Casey told the Burlington Free Press.

That's exactly right. This is a petty issue.

But for lawmakers who have long been complaining about the governor using tax dollars for PR this may give them pause if the vote heads to the Legislature.

That's exactly wrong. They're going to vote for the candidate with the most votes. That's the only right thing to do.

A few points to make:

First, Totten did some serious investigative journalism in delivering his report. Other reporters asked the question prior to Totten, but apparently didn't have as much research material to pursue follow up questions. Good job, Mr. Totten.

Second, Symington proposed enforcing the Code of Ethics into law in April 2007 in response to political appointee Neale Lunderville's bribery attempt with a legislator. Symington also proposed that the Code of Ethics should be applied to the Legislative Branch in addition to the Executive Branch. Douglas immediately dismissed her proposal and amazingly complained that the Legislature didn't have a Code of Ethics. Symington also proposed an independent oversight council to enforce the Code of Ethics. Conversely, only the Governor or his designated agent can enforce his Code of Ethics. Essentially, there is no oversight over Jim Douglas at all.

Symington is very strong on policy-making and brings a very high level of professional integrity to public office. In the likely scenario of a Legislative decision on the question of the next governor, "the only right thing to do" is to abide by the Constitution, not Haik Bedrosian's personal opinion. Given the governor's treatment of Legislature over the last 6 years along with the lack of accountability he accepts for himself, he should expect to start looking for a job or an early retirement next January.

Jim Douglas' pattern of behavior is very clear: he does not take responsibility for his shortcomings and instead diverts attention away from himself by blaming other people. His attempt to blame Howard Dean is simultaneously outrageous, hilarious and unacceptable.

Awesome work, Nate. How is it you're able to take so much time away from your Gourmet Kitty Litter business to save the world?

Response to Republican Attack of Vermont Milk Company

October 30, 2008 Press Statement:

Statement by Dexter Randall, Organic Dairy Farmer and Vermont Milk Company Board Member:

As a Vermont farmer, I am disappointed, in fact angry, though not surprised, that Governor Douglas and the Vermont Republican Party would attack the Vermont Milk Company as part of their political campaign. They have run the Vermont Milk Company through the manure spreader for their own political good. This move smacks of desperation and we cannot allow it to go unanswered.

Farmers, like all Vermonters, are tired of negative campaigning. Rather than spend tens of thousands of dollars attacking others, candidates should tell us what they are going to do for us.

It is absolutely wrong to say that Anthony left us ‘high and dry.” Anthony did what we asked him to do - help us establish the Vermont Milk Company. We then encouraged Anthony to run for Governor so we would have a Governor truly committed to doing the right thing for Vermont farmers and all Vermont families.

Years ago, we asked Anthony Pollina for help in looking for ways to regain control over our milk and create a Vermont dairy brand

Anthony founded Rural Vermont, helped lay groundwork for the Dairy Compact, helped found the Vermont Milk Company, advised Bernie Sanders on farm policy, served on the board of Vermont Northeast Organic Farmers and more.

As Governor, he will establish a real Vermont State buy local program - something Governor Douglas opposes - saying we farmers would raise our prices to take advantage of it. Anthony will get Vermont milk and dairy products into every Vermont school, something you have not done. We know Anthony is committed to these things and we trust him because he has a proven record of working with farmers, and because he is our friend.

We look forward to the Vermont Credit Card Anthony proposed. Instead of supporting big Wall Street banks that take our money out of state, the Vermont Credit Card will be part of Vermont and invest in Vermont agriculture every time it is used. It is frankly almost unbelievable to us farmers that anyone would oppose this fabulous way to invest in Vermont agriculture.

As far as we know, Governor Douglas has been a full-time politician virtually all of his adult life. As far as we know, he has never been part of a start-up business and may not know that all start-ups struggle. They struggle with high costs of fuel and transportation, workers comp and raw materials. And sometimes they even fall behind on their bills. The Governor does know many Vermont businesses are struggling even big ones like IBM, Rock of Ages, Tubbs and many others. And yes Vermont Milk has struggled and may continue to struggle, although we are close to turning our first profit.

The last thing any start-up needs is to be dragged through the manure by a politician who would risk our future for their own political gain. Shame on you Jim Douglas.

Statement by Rupert Thouron, Vermont Milk Company Investor and Board Member

I am an investor and small business owner. I joined the Vermont Milk Company to help small farmers in Vermont. This type of propaganda does not help the Vermont Milk Company establish a brand or place in Vermont. I am deeply saddended by this political move.

Statement by Anthony Pollina

It is really sad that Vermont politics has stooped so low. There are so many important issues and difficult struggles Vermonters are dealing with and this type of political manuvering does nothing to address them. I want to keep the important issues on the table but also feel I must respond to this attack.

Targeting a small business in an effort to make me look bad shows how out of touch Douglas is. It appears he has no sense of what start-ups go through. Big and small businesses struggle to make ends meet. For the Governor and the Vermont Republican Party to stoop so low shows how nervous they are about the coming election. I also find it remarkable that the Vermont Republican Party would spend over $48,000 to a company in Utah to carry out this attack. The Vermont economy and farmers could really use that money. I think Vermonters understand the challenges of running a business in Vermont and will not fall for this misdirected attack or negative misinformation

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