World of Make-Believe
In several stories over the last week, from sports to academics to politics, acting has played an important role in providing some unusual spin.
We saw it last week when the four favorites to win the first Tour de France in the post-Lance Armstrong Age were banned from the starting line. They are under investigation for taking illegal performance-inhancing drugs.
We saw it Saturday in the World Cup matches, with Portugal beating England in an overtime shootout after their two-hour-long 0-0 tie. Later, France upset Brazil 1-0.
We never before realized how much soccer players fake personal-contact injuries in hopes of getting the referee to fall for the ruse and blow his whistle. We never appreciated until now that faking is such an important part of the world's number-one game!
But what works on the soccer pitch does not work as well when it comes to government-funded scientific research. Last week a once-heralded University of Vermont researcher of the 1990s stood in federal court before Judge William Sessions and begged for mercy.
Former UVM College of Medicine prof Eric Poehlman, Ph.D., was at the top of the research game in 2000 when a courageous young lab technician and UVM grad named Walter DeNino challenged the professor's accuracy and honesty.
In a seemingly groundbreaking UVM study on menopause, Poehlman had changed the numbers to show that menopause led to muscle loss and increased weight. He touted the benefit of hormone replacement treatment. DeNino blew the whistle.
The Crooked Professor went on defense and filed a secret, sealed lawsuit in federal court to stop the investigation. Poehlman, who had received more than $2 million in federal research grants, accused the young lab tech of lying.
Judge Sessions reminded Dr. Poehlman of that earlier encounter last week as defense attorney Bob Hemley asked for the court's mercy.
Hemley described the Crooked Professor as "a man who in every way you can imagine has come to understand he did something wrong."
"Explain his conduct in coming before this court and lying," demanded Sessions.
"It was inexcusable," answered Hemley.
When it came his time to beg, Dr. Poehlman told the court he had been in "an academic position where the amount of grants you held determined your academic worth."
The Crooked Professor said he wanted to be looked at as a competent scientist. "I was on a treadmill and I couldn't get off," he said.
Judge Sessions sentenced Poehlman to serve a year and a day in the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons. It brings UVM the distinction of having the first university researcher in the nation to be sentenced to jail for taking federal dollars to fund fabricated research.
It's also brought DeNino unwanted notoriety. Just "Google" his name on the web, he told us in court, and you'll find he's been solidly labeled as a "whistleblower."
He's right. It's a reputation that might play well in Hollywood, but not so well in the research job market.
Nonetheless, DeNino told us he's scheduled to enter UVM's College of Medicine in August. Cardiac research is the path he's following.
If UVM isn't paying his medical school tuition, it damn well should.
Torti's Two Hats -- Speaking of fakery, it's been quite humorous to listen to the outrage being expressed lately by the Jim Douglas administration and Secretary of Natural Resources Tom Torti.
Contrary to the best-laid plans, word leaked out last week that Torti, the state's top environmental cop, had been picked to be the new president of the state's largest politically active pro-business organization, the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce -- http://www.vermont.org.
Tommy Terrific will replace retiring LCRCC prez-extraordinaire Wayne Roberts. Big shoes to fill. But then, Torti does know Montpelier, doesn't he?
The 27-year state employee first hit the radar as commissioner of Buildings and General Services under Gov. Howard Dean. Gov. Douglas elevated him to environmental secretary a year and a half ago. Tom's a "nice guy," and also serves as an Essex selectman, but many questioned his environmental credentials.
A look at its website shows the LCRCC wears its politics on its opening page. Environmentalists have long opposed, for example, the construction of the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway. They've successfully blocked further construction in federal court, forcing the state to seriously look at alternatives.
But Tom Torti, Vermont's chief environmental officer, will be fighting for the connector's construction when the legislative session starts in January. In fact, his mug will be in the official "Stud Book" with a few hundred other registered Statehouse lobbyists.
Last week the Vermont Public Interest Research Group put out a bulletin. "It's bad enough that the Douglas administration's top environmental official in charge of protecting Vermont's air, water, natural resources and human health has negotiated this deal with the Chamber of Commerce in secret," stated the VPIRG release, "but Mr. Torti actually wants to stay in his current post for another five months!"
Asked about the conflict of interest, or at least the perception of a rather black-and-white conflict of interest, Torti's current boss Gov. Scissorhands insisted Tommy Terrific will "not be wearing two hats. He will not be removing his current hat until later in the year and [will] put on his new hat in January."
Excuse me, but this is not about hats. This is about perception and about having a nonpartisan environmental chief in Vermont.
Torti declined to speak with us this week as the plot thickened. Last week he expressed his anger, noting no one from VPIRG had "the decency" to personally contact him to complain before going public.
Not sure if that really matters, does it, Mr. Environmental Secretary? The issue remains.
Gov. Douglas' spokesman unloaded in the same Times Argus article Friday, accusing VPIRG and other environmental critics of pulling a "stunt."
"This stunt by the environmental groups is disgraceful," Gibbs said. "[Torti] cares deeply about the state, its people and the environment."
On Monday, who rallied to Torti's defense? None other than lobbyist Joe Sinagra from the Home Builders Association. Sin- agra charged that the conflict-of-interest criticism raised by the enviros shows Vermonters "just how radical their organizations are."
Obviously, the word of Secretary Torti's politically prominent new job leaked out earlier than he, Douglas and the Chamber wanted it to. But keeping Torti on as Vermont's top environmental cop until he assumes his new job might require a dictatorship rather than a democracy.
Douglas' Democratic challenger, Scudder Parker, told "Inside Track" this week that Torti's decision to stay on with the governor's backing shows "startling bad judgment."
"Tom and the governor should have worked this out in a way that did not create the kind of confusion and the perception that it's created," said Parker. He termed it "a failure of administrative management and leadership on Mr. Douglas' part."
The Douglas administration would be wise to rethink its current stonewalling, and quickly.
After all, VPIRG's Burns pointed out the Douglas administration has already altered its new policy of allowing state workers to use air conditioners while on the job. The recently announced 80-degree threshold for hitting the "on" button was lowered last week to 76 degrees after state workers complained.
Bottom line: Every day Torti continues as Vermont's environmental chief will cost Jim Douglas on the campaign trail.
P.S. Interesting press coverage of the Torti conflict-of-interest story. WCAX-TV has ignored it! Gov. Douglas was not even asked the "$64,000 Question" when he appeared on "You Can Quote Me" on Sunday.
And The Burlington Free Press also completely ignored Torti's obvious conflict in an embarrassingly lame editorial that concluded, "Vermont has a reputation as a steward of the land and lakes. The person who leads the Agency of Natural Resources has a big job. Douglas should choose wisely."
Power Pact -- The $187 million sale of Green Mountain Power, Vermont's number-two electricity provider, to a $2.5 billion foreign company will take a year to win the required regulatory approvals.
OK, so it's a Canadian company -- Montreal-based Gaz Metro -- but Canada is a foreign country. In fact, the Bush administration wants to treat our oldest neighbor just like Russia or China, and require passports to enter the U.S. from Canadian turf. The goal, apparently, is to protect America from another 9/11. Hey, they could be hiding radioactive material in those hockey pucks, eh?
The announcement of the GMP buyout by Gaz Metro caught the eye of Wall Street. Standard & Poor's issued a credit watch, noting GMP's lousy BBB bond rating might improve since its financial future suddenly appeared brighter.
What the press apparently missed was that S&P also issued a credit watch for Gaz Metro. Only in this case, it was a warning to investors that the purchase of the little electric utility in Vermont could hurt Gaz Metro's A- rating.
Here in Vermont, the fact that Gaz Metro has owned and operated South Burlington-based Vermont Gas Systems for the last 20 years does help to ease the terrorism concerns among the locals.
Bottom line: Get used to Canadian control, folks, because there's only going to be more of it.
Gaz Metro's vice-president of finance and business development told the Montreal Gazette the other day that the GMP purchase is but the first little power ornament on Gaz Metro's soon-to-be-growing New England chain.
"There are 21 different suppliers in Vermont alone, in a state with a population of 600,000," said Pierre Despars. "There's a need to consolidate and find synergies that can be shared with customers, and Green Mountain Power will play a role in making that happen."
Hey, they're all ice hockey fans. It could be worse.
Inconvenience? -- Not at all for the 80 viewers who dropped into Burlington's Roxy Theater Sunday for the early 1 o'clock show. Rather large crowd for such a warm, sunny summer day.
But An Inconvenient Truth is a must-see even if you know the story line, i.e., that planet Earth is rapidly warming up from the greenhouse gases of our modern industrial, fossil-fuel-burning age, and the result will dramatically alter life as we know it.
The Al Gore in the movie is an Al Gore we've never seen before. Let's hope he hasn't arrived too late.
The Brit Factor -- Everybody in Vermont with a TV or radio has watched and heard Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rich Tarrant's commercials ad nauseam.
The rags-to-riches St. Michael's College grad is a cofounder of IDX, a company that was highly successful at developing and marketing software that handles billing and scheduling for doctors and hospitals.
An obvious part of Richie Rich's strategy is to turn his success in the medical software trade into health-care expertise voters can count on.
In his current campaign commercial, Tarrant is asked what he thinks about "the single-payer system where the senior citizens get left behind?"
An obvious loaded question. "Left behind?"
Everybody knows the frontrunner, Independent U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, has long advocated a single-payer approach. It's one reason the private, profitable health insurance industry despises him.
In his TV commercial Tarrant responds by saying, "Well, a government-run system like the one supported by my opponent clearly discriminates against the elderly over time. In England, you have a 42 percent greater chance of dying from cancer than you do in the United States."
What? How can that be? And if it were true, wouldn't people be fleeing England by the boatload?
We contacted Tarrant headquarters and inquired about the basis for their British cancer-death claim.
Tarrant campaign manager Tim Lennon emailed us a small 1996 chart published in 1999, from a study paid for by the Adam Smith Institute. ASI, founded in 1977, describes itself on its website as "Britain's leading innovator of free-market economic and social policies." Check it out at http://www.adamsmith.org.
According to the chart provided, the UK had 275 cancer deaths per 100,000 versus 194 deaths in the United States. That's 42 percent more, noted Mr. Lennon.
However, the Sanders campaign said we should hold our horses. Spokesman Paul Hortenstine accused the Tarrant campaign of "using crude statistics from the Adam Smith Institute, which is basically the Heritage Foundation of the UK."
Tall Paul from Bernie Land forwarded more recent death-rate statistics from the World Health Organization. WHO's cancer-death statistics are "age-standardized," i.e., a weighted average of the age-specific mortality rates. And WHO found the cancer death rates in the UK and the US to be a whole lot closer: 142.7 per 100,000 in the UK versus 134.4 in the United States. That's only about a 5 percent difference. Check it out here: http://www.who.int/whosis/en/index.html.
Not sure what all this means, especially since neither Richie Tarrant nor Bernie Sanders smokes cigarettes.
Incidentally, the same chart Tarrant used to "prove" his cancer death-rate claim in England also indicates the U.S. spends 17 times more on cancer treatment than does the UK.
And according to WHO, when it comes to deaths from cardiovascular diseases, the UK's single-payer system beats the U.S. -- 181.8 deaths per 100,000 there to 187.8 in the land of health insurance for profit!
When it comes to candidate Tarrant and health care, it appears to be all in the software, eh?