Public Money, Private Crime
In the fall of 2010, when the chance discovery of an out-of-sequence check revealed what turned out to be the biggest embezzlement in Vermont history, its victims kept quiet. The paper trail led straight to the criminal: Joyce Bellavance was filching massive amounts of cash from the Hardwick Electric Department, where she’d worked for 12 years. The numbers emerged — $1.4 million (later raised to $1.6 million) over 10 years’ time — as well as details about the loot: Pottery Barn furniture, Basin Harbor Club wedding, a Boston condo worth nearly $400K.
Then came the indictment: 13 charges of wire fraud and money laundering, to which Bellavance pled not guilty. And the denials: Joyce’s husband, Marc, claimed he didn’t know. Asked why she did it, Joyce didn’t know, either.
Behind closed doors in Hardwick and the 10 other towns HED serves, anger may have been voiced. Tradespeople who’d been whistling for years over the fancy-shmancy renovation of the Bellavance home may have nodded as the pieces clicked together.
But outside the well-attended public meeting called by Hardwick Electric shortly after the revelations, a town not known for keeping its opinions to itself was doing just that. Someone told me that folks viewed the whole thing as “a human tragedy.” Another said people felt bad for the Bellavances’ daughters. A rumor circulated that the hair stylist opened her doors early so Joyce could get a haircut without showing her face on Main Street.
The Hardwick Gazette reported the story exhaustively. But the letters pages, which overflow with passion about issues large and small, received only one about this.
Until the sentencing, the paper did not publish a photograph of Bellavance.
How to explain this silence? Most obvious: The Bellavances are a huge Hardwick family; they have 19 listings in the 2010-11 phone book (including Joyce’s), many of them couples. Joyce is a Darling — another important surname in these parts. Like a large percentage of people in Hardwick, Joyce and Marc Bellavance are related to a large percentage of other people in Hardwick.
The Bellavances are, moreover, from the right side of town. Joyce had a good-paying job with benefits and a pension. Marc was regional director of Aubuchon Hardware. Their house overlooking Mackville Pond is hardly Versailles, even with the publicly funded Pottery Barn furniture in it. But you could do a lot worse in Hardwick.
At this writing — days after Bellavance’s sentencing — the Hardwick Establishment is still keeping its ranks, and its mouth, closed.
So who speaks for the injured parties — who include everyone on the grid in 11 Northeast Kingdom towns?
Mostly, the utility.
At that first meeting, HED general manager Eric Werner listed some of Bellavance’s victims: the church and the school, the storekeepers and homeowners. At the sentencing hearing last week, he noted that each of HED’s 4200 customers was out $380 in the theft. Warren Hill, vice-chair of the board, said the embezzlement increased rates; surely, “there have been disconnects” because of it. Debbie Lawson, the woman who found the smoking check, recalled the “horror, shock, disbelief and sadness” everyone felt and the turmoil into which the investigation threw the office.
They were talking about an individual betrayal of other individuals.
In a way, that makes sense. HED is a little government enterprise, housed in a little white clapboard building, inside a little government; its four-member Board of Commissioners is appointed by the five-member Select Board. It’s the rare Hardwickian who is not acquainted with at least one person connected with HED.
But the department isn’t just a collection of individuals, as Judge William Sessions reminded the convict and the public. It is a public institution, and Bellavance a public servant. Her crime, he declared, “shatters the respect for public institutions and public officials so that any public servant suffers.”
So it is a mark of the popular disrespect of everything public that the only people catching scorn around here have been the bureaucrats who screwed up. That single letter to the Gazette did not condemn Joyce Bellavance. Instead, it scolded the HED board and management for its negligent oversight and proposed that the utility remit its fraud insurance payout to the ratepayers.
The writer had a point about the oversight. Furthermore, when a million and a half bucks disappear on your watch, the honorable response is to fall on your sword — or make a pantomime thereof. Werner didn’t.
Still, you could say that Werner had to stay put, if only to continue as the face of the wronged community, a role that nobody else was assuming.
Two kinds of community were in conflict — the community represented by a publicly financed institution dispensing an invisible, if crucial, commodity; and the community embodied in the relationships of interlocking families. Blood is thicker than copier ink.
In an earlier era, when transgression was punished directly by a community, Joyce and Marc Bellavance might have ended up in the stocks, with the rest of Hardwick jeering at them. Outrage and justice were one. The modern system, in which everyone is equal under the law and the state dispassionately metes out penalties, is — at least in principle — more just.
But once justice is dispensed (if that’s what you call 42 months, plus restitution of the money, for a crime that could carry a decades-long sentence), rage still wants outing. Not the least of its appropriate objects is Joyce’s contention that she was a victim — alleging her thefts were the uncontrollable symptoms of depression and feelings of worthlessness stemming from childhood sexual abuse. And the chutzpah just keeps coming: Marc is still arguing he has rights to keep the house.
In the end, it fell to Hardwickians from the other side of town to speak public bitterness and expose the iniquitous machineries of both social and criminal justice.
“I am a taxpayer and townsperson in Hardwick, Vermont, and I feel that Joyce should get the strictest penalty for the crime she committed,” wrote one Hardwick Resident in the reader comments section of the Burlington Free Press. “Many people are sexually and physically abused and they cannot and do not use that as an excuse to commit crimes.”
The commenter continued: “In this small town you are judged by your last name, and if your last name is one of those that are considered to be in ‘HIGHER STANDINGS,’ people look the other way and act as if they are blind to anything you do. This is unfair. If I was the one who had committed this crime, I would have been put in jail and given the strictest penalty!”
Somewhat incoherently, an interesting detail emerges: “Joyce had my lights shut off in the past and I think that she should have to reimberse [sic] the town but ALSO reimberse the people who had to pay their bill more then [sic] once due to her embezzling — those who had to struggle to come up with money to pay shut off’s.” (HED charges $30 to reconnect service.)
Another Hardwick resident wrote, “They just keep telling me they would shut me off and I’m on oxygen she didn’t care.” They being HED and she, Bellavance.
While pocketing the people’s money, Joyce Bellavance was stringently enforcing the rules of the public institution at its most impersonal. For what were no doubt serial delinquencies on small bills, it was she who looked her neighbors in the eye and told them she had no choice but to turn the lights off.
“Poli Psy” is a monthly column by Judith Levine. Got a comment on this story? Contact email@example.com.