Policing the Politicians
Is the Vermont Department of Public Safety playing political favorites? Does the state’s public-records law support its reasoning about whether to release videotapes of two high-profile pols being pulled over by state troopers?
Those are the questions raised by a records review of how DPS handled the highway hijinks of Republican State Auditor Tom Salmon, who was busted late last year for drunk driving, and the more recent moving violation of wannabe governor and lead-foot Democrat Peter Shumlin, clocked at 81mph on Interstate 91.
It took the state police less than one business day to release the videotape of Shumlin’s infraction, according to emails obtained between WCAX-TV’s news director Anson Tebbetts and the public safety department.
Meanwhile, Salmon’s video still hasn’t been released, a month after it was first requested.
DPS Commissioner Thomas Tremblay asserts he isn’t favoring one politician over another, just abiding the law: Shumlin’s stop was a civil offense and therefore a public record; Salmon’s was a criminal offense, which means any subsequent investigation must be kept confidential.
Records of a criminal investigation are not public, Tremblay maintains, even if the crime has been adjudicated. Salmon pled guilty, paid his fine and temporarily lost his driver’s license.
That’s not what the law says. Records dealing with the “detection and investigation of crime” are exempt from inspection, but state law offers this caveat: “Records relating to management and direction of a law enforcement agency and records reflecting the initial arrest of a person and the charge shall be public.”
According to the original state police report, Salmon was pulled over last November for a “motor vehicle infraction,” or failing to use a turn signal. Asked if he had been drinking, he replied in the affirmative. He ended up blowing a .086 and was handcuffed and arrested for driving under the influence, aka DUI.
Does that qualify as a video record of Salmon’s “initial arrest?” Not according to Tremblay: It was the start of a criminal investigation.
On June 17, troopers stopped Shumlin for speeding en route from Craftsbury to his Putney home. He, too, was pulled over for a traffic violation. But no further crime was detected.
Tremblay alerted Gov. Jim Douglas’ chief of staff, legal counsel and spokesman that WCAX was asking about Shumlin’s speeding ticket, according to email records obtained by “Fair Game.”
Legal counsel Susanne Young replied, “I have no cell service. Will call for update later.”
Wonder if she offered Tremblay some advice on the phone?
Tremblay maintained he released the video so quickly because Shumlin consented to it. “Fair Game” has learned that Tremblay told the senator the video had been requested by WCAX, would be released and was he OK with that? Nice Hobson’s choice.
As for Salmon’s video, the state is taking its sweet time processing requests for it.
On September 7, Burlington attorney John Franco, a longtime Progressive and supporter of Salmon’s opponent, Democrat Doug Hoffer, ordered a copy of the video from the state police website. On September 14, the order’s status was “fulfilled and shipped,” according to records provided to “Fair Game.” Then, on September 21, Franco received a letter rejecting his order on grounds the video isn’t a public record because it deals with the “detection and investigation of a crime.”
Franco appealed the ruling to Tremblay on September 24, noting that a roadside video is a record “reflecting the initial arrest of a person” and therefore public. On September 29, Tremblay rejected Franco’s appeal. Franco is not sure if he’ll take Tremblay to court.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why one video was released easily to the media when it involved a Democrat and why the other is being withheld when the person involved is a Republican,” said Franco.
That’s the Ticket
When the story of Shumlin’s speeding ticket first aired, the burning question was whether Shumlin used his Senate ID card instead of his driver’s license as a way to avoid the ticket.
Turns out Shumlin didn’t need to flash his ID to get special treatment.
WCAX-TV revealed last week that two troopers were involved in a plot to void Shumlin’s ticket. Neither trooper has been identified or disciplined, DPS Commissioner Thomas Tremblay said. He made sure to say the officer who issued the ticket had nothing to do with voiding it.
Shumlin insists he didn’t know what the troopers did for him, but admits he received a phone call from a state trooper after he received the ticket and before he paid for it.
“I did get a phone call from someone in the state police about something entirely different,” Shumlin said. “He razzed me about the ticket and my driving, and then made what I thought was a joke about fixing it for me. I said, ‘Oh, yeah, that’d really help me in my run for governor.’”
According to Shumlin, he paid his ticket on June 22, a Tuesday, and mailed it to the Vermont Judicial Bureau in White River Junction.
The bureau processed the check the following Monday, June 28, according to judicial records obtained by “Fair Game” — ironically, the same day WCAX-TV aired its original story about Shumlin’s speeding violation.
On July 2, the police officer’s copy of the ticket arrived at the bureau. By July 6, its status had changed to “voided.”
On July 14, a worker at the bureau called the police barracks to confirm the cancellation, only to be told it had been done “in error.” On July 19, a state police lieutenant faxed the bureau to clear up the matter: “Ticket number 2531335 written to Peter Shumlin was voided in error and should stand as a valid ticket.”
No one was curious about the ticket until WCAX picked up on the story again, requesting a copy of the paperwork on September 28. The courts swiftly handed over the requested records.
WCAX’s story about the voided ticket ran September 29, roughly one week after the troopers’ union endorsed Shumlin for governor over Republican Brian Dubie. At the same time, the spotlight was on Dubie for campaigning at a state police barracks.
WCAX news director Anson Tebbetts is a former Douglas administration official who served as deputy secretary of agriculture for two and a half years. One of WCAX-TV’s longtime reporters, Kate Duffy, is Dubie’s spokeswoman.
The Burlington City Council recently decided not to ask Queen City voters in the form of a ballot question whether they support the legalization, taxation and regulation of cannabis and marijuana.
But pot is a statewide issue. In the race for governor, Shumlin supports decriminalization. Despite his surname, Dubie thinks it should remain illegal to possess a doobie.
According to the annual Vermont Crime Report issued by the Department of Public Safety, roughly 70 percent of the 2246 drug-crime incidents in 2009 involved marijuana. Cocaine and crack cocaine cases accounted for slightly more than 9 percent of the drug crimes. Amphetamine and methamphetamine cases constituted fewer than 1 percent of drug cases.
In his latest book, Echoes of Vermont: People and Politics in the Green Mountains, longtime public servant and politico Tom Davis noted that Republican Gov. Deane Davis, his dad, created a committee to determine whether the state should relax its marijuana-possession laws.
The committee, chaired by Burlington lawyer Hilton Wick, met a few times before voting to recommend decriminalizing marijuana in Vermont.
The year? 1971.
“The idea of decriminalizing marijuana was never introduced as a bill in the legislature and, surprisingly, received very little press coverage at the time,” writes Tom Davis. “Nothing happened to this idea that would have saved millions of dollars and helped avoid the worst aspects of the corrections crisis that is haunting Vermont.”
The Doctor Is Out
Could former Gov. Howard Dean find himself a place in the Obama administration now that his arch-nemesis, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, is out of the picture?
If Emanuel has any remaining influence, the answer would be no.
A new book — Herding Donkeys by Nation writer Ari Berman — details their mutual dislike. The rift started when Dean refused to give Emanuel millions of dollars to back certain Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections. Emanuel was then head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. As chair of the Democratic National Committee, Dean was trying to funnel millions of dollars into his 50-state strategy rather than using it to back a select few D.C. insider Dems.
When Emanuel took the chief of staff job in 2008, one senior member of the transition team told Berman, “There was never any intention to hire Dean, and in fact there was a great deal of satisfaction at dissing him. The orders were coming down from Rahm that Dean was not to be considered for anything … and he didn’t want anything to do with him.” Ouch.
The battle is on between WCAX-TV and WPTZ NewsChannel 5. In late summer, WCAX launched early evening newscasts at 5 and 5:30 p.m. to go head to head with WPTZ’s early newscasts.
Now WPTZ is fighting back.
WPTZ won a bidding war with WCAX to snag Vermont Children’s Hospital chief pediatrician Dr. Lewis First, and also wooed away “bird diva” Bridget Butler from WCAX. Butler, who works at ECHO, reports on birds and wildlife for WCAX and Vermont Public Radio.
She’s going to become a “conservation correspondent” for WPTZ and keep her gig at VPR.
WPTZ will soon be looking for a new anchor. Longtime newsguy Gus Rosendale is headed to Minneapolis.
Could a familiar WCAX face end up on WPTZ? Stay tuned.
Editor's Note: Seven Days staffers Shay Totten and Dan Bolles and their substitutes are not paid by WPTZ to appear on the station.