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June 2013

June 19, 2013

Fleischer Steps Aside in Shake-Up at Vermont Health CO-OP

618-LM-healthcoopThe founder of the Vermont Health CO-OP is stepping down as board chair as part of an effort to convince skeptical state regulators to reconsider a recent decision denying the CO-OP a license to sell insurance.

Mitchell Fleischer, the CEO of private insurance and investment firm Fleischer Jacobs Group, says he's ceding his position to minimize distractions as the federally funded CO-OP tries to bounce back from a scalding decision issued by the Department of Financial Regulation last month that accused the fledgling CO-OP of mismanagement and financial instability.

In that decision, DFR commissioner Susan Donegan rejected the CO-OP's application to sell insurance on the federally mandated health care exchange set to launch in January. Using federal funds allocated by "Obamacare," the CO-OP would offer a member-owned alternative to the only two companies currently licensed to sell insurance on the exchange: Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont and MVP. 

For now, those plans are on hold. Donegan has said the CO-OP has two choices — submit a new application for licensure, or appeal DFR's decision to the Vermont Supreme Court. Neither could realistically happen quickly enough to let the CO-OP join the health care exchange this year. So the CO-OP's leaders are banking on a third approach: convince Donegan to reopen her decision. 

But the CO-OP needs to make significant changes to have any chance of winning over Donegan. The questions CEO Christine Oliver and Fleischer (pictured) found themselves asking themselves, Fleischer says, boiled down to: "What can we fix? ... And can we get all of this done in the next month?"

Fleischer's resignation — which came officially on June 13 — is part of that plan.

Continue reading "Fleischer Steps Aside in Shake-Up at Vermont Health CO-OP" »

Media Note: Rutland Herald Eliminates Chief Photographer Position

After 30 years on the job, Rutland Herald chief photographer Vyto Starinskas says he was let go and his job eliminated Tuesday afternoon.

According to several people with knowledge of the situation, Starinskas was not the only Herald employee laid off Tuesday, though Seven Days could not immediately confirm the details. Neither publisher John Mitchell nor state editor Rob Mitchell returned calls seeking comment late Tuesday.

"Today I packed up my stuff at the Rutland Herald for the last time because my job as Chief Photographer was eliminated for financial reasons by the newspaper, along with some other jobs," Starinskas wrote on Facebook. 

Reached Wednesday morning, Starinskas confirmed the situation but declined to speak about it further, explaining that he was still processing the news.

According to the Herald's web site, Starinskas was one of three staff photographers for the paper. Its sister paper, the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus also employs two photographers.

Starinskas struck a positive tone in his Facebook post, writing that he had a "huge smile" on his face when he left the paper Tuesday — just as he did when he joined it in 1980.

"I was so privileged to be able to touch the hearts of so many Vermonters who let me into their personal lives to be shared with the Rutland Herald," he wrote. "I am so excited by my future and saddened by the job eliminations and the impact on people's lives. Thank you Rutland Herald readers for all the wonderful years. One bad day isn't going to wipe that smile off my face."

We'll update this story when more information becomes available.

June 18, 2013

Michael Hastings, National Reporter With Vermont Roots, Dies at 33

HastingsOne of Vermont’s — and the nation’s — most talented and provocative young journalists died in a Los Angeles car crash early Tuesday morning, BuzzFeed and Rolling Stone reported Tuesday evening.

Michael Hastings, who moved to Vermont at age 16 and graduated from Rice Memorial High School in 1998, was just 33 years old.

Hastings was best known for a June 2010 Rolling Stone cover story that quoted aides to Gen. Stanley McChrystal criticizing Vice President Joe Biden and other White House officials. After Hastings' story broke, McChrystal was immediately summoned back to Washington, D.C., and stripped of his command of American forces in Afghanistan.

Hastings won the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting for the story, upon which he based his second book, The Operators

He was no stranger to dangerous assignments. After volunteering to serve as an Iraq war correspondent for Newsweek at age 25, his fiancé, Andi Parhamovich, was killed when a convoy in which she was riding was ambushed. Hastings wrote about her death in his first book, I Lost My Love in Baghdad.

A contributor to BuzzFeed and Gentleman’s Quarterly and contributing editor to Rolling Stone, Hastings shifted his focus in recent years to domestic politics, where he made quite a stir.

When he pressed then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s spokesman on the Benghazi attacks last September, the aide memorably told him to “fuck off.” Later that fall, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel grabbed him during an interview, Hastings wrote, "clearly trying to intimidate me with a threat of physical violence."

Though Hastings lived in New York City with his wife Elise Jordan, he told Vermont Life earlier this year that he continued to consider Vermont his “spiritual home.” That Vermont Life story — and a cover photo of Hastings on the Burlington waterfront — remains on newsstands today.

Earlier this year, Seven Days included Hastings in a roundup of national journalists who hail from the state. He spoke with VPR's Neal Charnoff in this 2008 interview about his first book and to WCAX-TV's Keith McGilvery about the McChrystal story in this 2012 profile.

In one of the most entertaining local stories about the reporter, Rice student Alta Viscomi chronicled a March 2012 speech at his alma mater, during which Hastings recounted being stripped of the senior class presidency after using the term "shagadelic" during announcements. He also, allegedly, compared his high school principal to Jabba the Hutt.

In a statement, Hastings' editor at BuzzFeed called him "a great, fearless journalist with an incredible instinct for the story, and a gift for finding ways to make his readers care about anything he covered, from wars to politicians."

Hastings, to be sure, will be missed.

Williston Spa Under Investigation for Suspected Human Trafficking Since 2011

Booska-webAn Asian massage parlor in Williston where male customers routinely paid for massages and sexual favors has been under investigation since at least April 2011 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for suspected human trafficking and financial fraud, court papers revealed Tuesday.

These and other details about the Harmony Health Spa were included in an affidavit filed Tuesday in the arraignment of Tom Booska (pictured) in Chittenden Superior Court in Burlington.

Booska, 68, who owns the building that until late last week housed the Harmony Health Spa, at 5649 Williston Road, pled not guilty to a single misdemeanor charge of "prohibited acts," for allegedly allowing prostitution to occur on his premises. If convicted, Booska faces up to one year in jail.

Though he denied the allegations, Booska said through his attorney that he plans to cooperate with investigators.

"This particular property has been a problem for close to 10 years," Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan said Tuesday, referring to a police raid on the establishment in 2004 that netted eight female workers believed to be sex slaves. "Mr. Booska was on notice. He failed to act. The [sex] acts continued and that's why he’s in court today."

Continue reading "Williston Spa Under Investigation for Suspected Human Trafficking Since 2011" »

Sanders and Welch Go to Bat for Migrant Farmworker Facing Deportation; Leahy Still Noncommittal

Danilo LopezMexican farmworker leader Danilo Lopez has scored two high-profile supporters in his campaign to fight deportation and stay in Vermont.

On Monday, Sen. Bernie Sanders sent a letter on Lopez's behalf to the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), John Morton, asking the agency to reconsider its decision to send Lopez home to Chiapas on July 6.

"Mr. Lopez has been a farmworker in Vermont for five years," Sanders wrote. "He has an excellent reputation as a worker and has been involved in organizing efforts for a group of approximately 1500 farmworkers in our state who do not have legal status. ... I respectfully request that you look into this matter at your earliest convenience..."

Congressman Peter Welch is drafting a similar letter to ICE on Lopez's behalf, says spokesman Ryan Nickel, and will send it by the end of today.

On Monday, Lopez (pictured) made a last-ditch attempt to halt the deportation, sending ICE a petition signed by 1000 supporters along with 20 personal letters asking the feds to exercise "prosecutorial discretion" in the case. The letters from Sanders and Welch add weight to Lopez's appeal but he still lacks the one signature that might matter most: that of Sen. Patrick Leahy.

As debate over federal immigration reform raged in Washington Monday, Leahy spokesman David Carle said Vermont's senior senator had not decided whether to go to bat for Vermont's best-known undocumented immigrant.

"Senator Leahy’s staff in Vermont and on the Judiciary Committee have been exploring for the best way that Senator Leahy could help," Carle said via email.

Continue reading "Sanders and Welch Go to Bat for Migrant Farmworker Facing Deportation; Leahy Still Noncommittal" »

In Reversal, VSEA Reinstates Mitchell, Calls for Independent Investigation

Vsea-mitchellHis tenure still in turmoil, the executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association hailed his reinstatement at the union Monday.

"It's a qualified vindication, at least at this point," said Mark Mitchell, who was ousted by the union's board of trustees last Wednesday by a vote of 10 to six.

On Monday came word that the board had voted 10 to seven at an emergency meeting to reverse its own decision and bring Mitchell back onboard — at least for the time being.

"After lengthy debate and review of the facts before them, the Board voted this afternoon to reverse its initial decision and reinstate Mitchell as Executive Director, pending an independent, third-party investigation, which will be launched immediately and could last up to a month," union spokesman Doug Gibson said in a written statement. "The board voted to place Mitchell on administrative leave, with pay, for the duration of the investigation."

According to Gibson, legislative director Steve Howard and operations director Kathi Partlow have been tasked with running the union's day-to-day operations until the situation is resolved. 

We'll have more on the story in this week's Seven Days.

June 17, 2013

Williston Massage Parlor Accused of Prostitution Officially Closed

Harmony spa 1A Williston massage parlor that provided sexual services for money has closed.

As of Monday afternoon, Harmony Health Spa had two pink flyers taped to the front door that read, "Health spa permanently closed." A sign outside displaying the spa's name and hours of operation had been removed, as had the neon "open" sign that previously hung in the front window.

Harmony Health Spa was one of three businesses outed for prostitution and potential human trafficking in the June 5 Seven Days cover story, "Unhappy Endings: Getting a Grip on Vermont's Asian Sex Market." The other two — River Spa in Burlington and Seiwa Spa in Essex Junction — closed following publication of the story.

Harmony photo 2The closure of Harmony Health Spa comes days after the building's owner, Tom Booska, was charged with knowingly allowing prostitution to occur on the premises.

Last Tuesday, in response to the Seven Days exposé, Williston Police Chief Todd Shepard hand-delivered a letter to Booska from Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan warning Booska that he could be held criminally liable if authorities found evidence of prostitution on his property.

The next day, Williston police visited the massage parlor and confronted two customers leaving the premises. Both admitted that they had received sexual services there in exchange for money. Booska is scheduled to be arraigned on Tuesday morning.

Donovan said Friday that the two customers who confessed to paying for sex will be asked to testify against Booska and not be charged as "johns." Likewise, Donovan reiterated his longstanding policy that women providing sex for money will not be charged as prostitutes if there is evidence they are the victims of human trafficking.

More on this story to come...

VPR Interactive Tracks FEMA Irene Relief Money

Screen shot 2013-06-14 at 5.03.15 PMAs the geek-in-residence at Seven Days, I love it when an online news story comes with a good interactive or multimedia element — a "news app," as the cool kids say. That and I have a laughably tiny attention span, such that pushing buttons is more appealing than reading 3000 words (don't tell my bosses).

The NPR mothership has long pioneered the use of web-native technology in journalism (a recent favorite is their exhaustive guide to "Arrested Development" jokes), and now that's trickled down to their Vermont member station. Vermont Public Radio published a great multi-part interactive breaking down which towns and organizations have received the $185 million in grant money FEMA doled out after Tropical Storm Irene.

Continue reading "VPR Interactive Tracks FEMA Irene Relief Money" »

June 14, 2013

The Scoreboard: This Week's Winners and Losers

Scoreboard.newWho won and lost the week in Vermont news and politics? 

The answer lies below in the Scoreboard for the week ending Friday, June 14:


Ken Picard — More than a week after the Seven Days reporter (disclosure: his desk is 10 feet away from mine!) broke a story about prostitution in Chittenden County massage parlors, local law enforcement and the rest of the media are finally catching up. Runner-up losers: The "johns" who've continued to frequent Harmony Health Spa since and got busted by the fuzz Wednesday. What's the matter? Those dudes don't read Seven Days?!

Queen City cyclists — You better pull over for this one: If Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger gets his way, the city's next Department of Public Works chief will be... a bike geek. What does Local Motion's Chapin Spencer know about plowing snow and filling potholes? We'll find out soon enough.

Backcountry skiers — Good news this week for the "old goats" who tear up the woods in the Bolton backcountry. The gnar will be shred-able in perpetuity thanks to a million-dollar fundraising effort led by the Vermont Land Trust and funded in part by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

More after the break...

Continue reading "The Scoreboard: This Week's Winners and Losers" »

Williston Landlord Charged With Allowing Prostitution, Customers May Be Identified in Court

Harmony Health Spa

Police have finally taken action against one of the Asian massage parlors outed by Seven Days for prostitution and possible human trafficking.

On Thursday evening, Williston police charged Tom Booska, owner of the building housing Harmony Health Spa, with knowingly allowing prostitution on the premises. He was cited to  appear in court next Tuesday.

Williston Police Chief Todd Shepard says police went to the massage parlor on Wednesday and spoke to two customers leaving the spa who said they received sexual services in exchange for money.

The day before, Shepard hand-delivered a letter to Booska from Chittenden State's Attorney T.J. Donovan warning the landlord he would be held criminally liable if authorities found evidence of prostitution on his property.

"He was allowed some opportunity to do something about it and it was still continuing on Wednesday," Shepard said.

The investigation was a response to Seven Days' June 5 cover story, "Unhappy Endings: Getting a Grip on Vermont's Asian Sex Market." The article documented prostitution at three Chittenden County massage parlors: Harmony, Seiwa Spa in Essex Junction and River Spa in Burlington. The latter two have since closed.

Shepard also said that Williston police had reported zoning violations at the spa to the town planning and zoning director after it learned the women were living on site. According to Shepard, Booska received the notice of violation and was actively seeking apartments to house the women when he was charged.

Continue reading "Williston Landlord Charged With Allowing Prostitution, Customers May Be Identified in Court" »

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