Longtime hired-gun business lobbyist Steve Kimbell took the witness chair in the Senate General Affairs Committee last Thursday morning and delivered quite the bombshell. The ex-Marine told the senators of an "unprecedented" incident that happened the day before.
On the committee's plate that morning was S. 154, the Whistleblower Bill. In its current form, the bill would protect Vermont hospital workers who blow the whistle on management misconduct from retaliation. It's strongly supported by the nurses' union, and strongly opposed by the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems.
Kimbell, lobbyist for the VAHHS (and Blue Cross Blue Shield, GMP and Adelphia Cable, among others), testified he had been accosted just outside the Statehouse door by an organizer for the nurses' union. Andrew Tripp, said Kimbell, "confronted me outside the building. He stood one inch from my face and yelled at me for three or four minutes, until the security folks came out of the building and asked him to move on." He said he thought Mr. Tripp was going to hit him.
Kimbell testified that the committee ought not reward the use of "physical intimidation," by passing the whistleblower bill. "I don't think you should endorse that kind of behavior with your votes."
Nurse Sue Lucas was flabbergasted by Kimbell's remarks and asked to be heard.
"I'm sorry for being emotional," said Lucas, on the verge of tears, "but this is about patient lives, not about Mr. Kimbell saying we're aggressive, physical people. We are not. We're health-care workers."
On the audio recording of the hearing, Kimbell can be heard muttering, "I'm not going to stand for this," as Lucas spoke. One can hear the door slam behind him as he leaves the committee room.
State Sen. Matt Dunne later told Seven Days that lobbyist Kimbell's behavior was "very surprising." He said he'd never before heard testimony on a bill that did not address the legislation at hand.
Mr. Kimbell's portrayal of himself as a victim clearly did not sway the committee. They voted 5-1 in favor of the Whistle-blower Bill. It will now proceed to the Senate floor.
So what really happened, folks?
Capitol Police Chief Dave Janawicz told Seven Days that the Sergeant at Arms office had received a call saying "two guys were arguing and fighting" outside the east door. Janawicz and Sgt. Les Dimick responded immediately. He said they found two guys arguing. He recognized Kimbell but not the other chap.
"I told them to shut up, cut it out and move on," said Dave the Cop.
Mr. Tripp's version of the confrontation differs somewhat from Mr. Kimbell's. He did indeed have a word with Kimbell outside the building. And it did quickly get heated. But what started it all, he said, was Kimbell's intimidating remarks to Jen Henry, R.N., president of the nurses' union, a couple weeks earlier.
According to Henry, Kimbell had approached her in the hallway following her committee testimony and called her "a liar." She told Seven Days Kimbell waved his finger in her face and said, "You better be careful because you're a liar. You better be careful."
Tripp, senior field representative for United Professions of Vermont, told Seven Days he was exiting the Statehouse Wednesday when he noticed Kimbell standing there with a couple other folks. It was the first he'd seen of him since the earlier incident. He said he approached Kimbell "and I said in a civil tone that he was not to threaten Jen Henry, call her a liar and get in her face."
It was definitely a rare Statehouse mano a mano moment. The yelling and screaming escalated from there. Asked about Kimbell's subsequent testimony that he felt Tripp was about to punch him out, the union organizer said Kimbell had egged him on during their shouting match, saying, "Why don't you hit me? I know you want to hit me."
Kimbell denies saying such. "I'm an old guy," said Kimbell, 59. "I can't afford to get into fights with anybody." He also denies calling Jen Henry a liar.
"Telling someone they're not telling the truth," said Mr. Kimbell, "is a lot different than calling someone a liar. In my parlance, there's a big difference."
By the way, the Whistleblower Bill's sponsor, Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chitten-den), said the motivation for the bill was the recent Fletcher Allen Health Care
"It's clear," said Lyons, "that if people had been protected in that situation, then they would have been able to speak up when they saw something wrong. It's important to have that protection."
We asked Bea Grause, president of the VAHHS, for an interview on the Whistle-blower Bill that she and her association strongly oppose, but she declined.
"I'm focused on other issues right now," said the Queen Bea of Hospitals.
Asked if she had any problem with her Statehouse hired-gun lobbyist, she replied that she did not.
"Divide and Bicker" --
That was the headline on Howard Kurtz's eye-opening piece on the inner turmoil in the Howard Dean campaign that ran in Sunday's Washington Post. And for the first time since Dean's demise, his closest aide, Kate O'Connor, came out of the political closet. Here's a tease:
"As Dean was swallowed by the bubble that envelops every major candidate, he allowed his campaign to sink into a nasty civil war that crippled decision-making and devastated morale. In the end, say some of those who uprooted their lives for him, these tensions hastened the implosion that brought Dean down.
"The polarization revolved around two people: Joe Trippi, the rumpled, passionate, sometimes headstrong campaign manager who drew rock-star coverage in the press, and Kate O'Connor, the quiet, shrewd, low-profile Vermont confidante who never left Dean's side.
"Trippi, 47, said it was hard for a campaign manager to function' amid the infighting' when he was constantly being undermined. He said O'Connor was trying to help Dean, but there were two world views of what was best for him, and those two worlds kept colliding.'"
Needless to say, the piece was not a very favorable one for Kiss Me Kate.
For Kate, it was all about being 100 percent "loyal" to Howard Dean and "protecting him" from all harm. Unfortunately, in Kate's view, that meant protecting him from the outsiders like Trippi who were hired to get him elected president.
Wrote Kurtz: "Trippi dispatched various aides to accompany Dean and O'Connor on the road, but problems developed each time. One said he was viewed as "Trippi's spy." Another said O'Connor would "kill" people she viewed as insufficiently loyal. A third said staffers were frightened of "the wrath of Kate." As fundraising surged and the campaign was rapidly expanding, Trippi tried to hire several seasoned pros, but told colleagues that O'Connor had blocked his efforts.
It's the story Vermont politicos are buzzing about this week. Check it out for yourself at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A15741-2004Feb28.html .
Terrorist Update --
Do you know where your children are? Chances are they're spending more time with terrorists than they are with you.
At least that's the view of the Bush Administration's Secretary of Education Rod Paige. Paige told a gaggle of governors at the White House last week that the teachers' union, the National Education Association, is, in his view, "a terrorist organization."
Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas was even in the room!
In fact, the national AP story quoted Gov. Douglas defending Paige's right to express "his perspective."
Back home in Vermont, Douglas was asked if he had anything else to say about the matter. He did.
"I don't agree with it. It was unfortunate. It was inaccurate." Douglas said Sec. Paige was just "expressing his frustration and should have chosen other words to do it."
Like Nazis? Storm troopers? Child molesters?
Shouldn't an education secretary, any education secretary, who publicly calls the public school teachers of America "terrorists" resign or be fired?
"The question of his tenure is not for me to determine," answered Gov. Aw Shucks. "From time to time, we all say things that we later regret."
Douglas' Democratic challenger Peter Clavelle has a very different point of view. Mayor Moonie told Seven Days Sec. Paige should have been fired on the spot.
"To me that was an outrageous comment, insulting to teachers across the country, and I'd hoped the governor would condemn that comment.
"Of course that's the secretary's perspective," said Clavelle, "but it's an outrageous perspective and one that ought to be roundly condemned."
Drug War --
It appears we're going to be hearing about a great many differences of opinion and perspective in the coming months as candidates Douglas and Clavelle pitch themselves to Vermont voters. Unlike two years ago, the 2004 gubernatorial race will offer clear differences.
In 2002, Treasurer Douglas and Democratic Lt. Gov. Doug Racine appeared cut from much the same Montpeculiar cloth. They walked and talked like separated-at-birth twins, each trying to out-middle-of-the-road the other.
Not this time. The contrast between Douglas and Clavelle is dramatic, and we're not just talking hairlines.
Take the great senior-citizen rip-off of modern times -- the exorbitant U.S. price for pharmaceutical drugs. While Douglas is super-cautious and avoids red flags, Clavelle grabs the bull by the horns.
Last week Burlington began purchasing drugs for city employees north of the border in Canada where the same pills sell at dramatically lower prices. Vermont took the lead on this issue a few years back when Congressman Bernie Sanders led a busload of senior citizens to Montreal.
Naturally, the Bush administration sides with the pharmaceutical industry. And, naturally, Gov. Douglas says he considered Burlington's Canadian purchase program illegal.
"I've received advice from the attorney general of Vermont that it would be illegal for the state to move forward with that sort of program," said Gov. Douglas. "To organize that sort of effort on the state level, the attorney general has advised me, would not be lawful."
Asked if the attorney general's opinion was verbal or written, Douglas said he didn't know. He quickly passed the ball to Administration Secretary Mike Smith. Smith described it as a "written document, two or three pages long." He said it was not a public document, rather protected by "lawyer-client privilege."
Interviewed this week, Demo-cratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell told Seven Days he was not aware his office had put something in writing for the governor.
"We certainly talked to them about applicable law," said Sorrell. But, "It certainly was not a formal opinion," insisted the AG. "They didn't ask for a formal opinion and we didn't render one."
After checking, however, Sorrell learned his office had, in fact, sent the governor a written "internal memo" on the drug reimportation subject. He said his office had merely presented "the pros and cons."
He declined to say more on the subject and would not give us his opinion on the legality of the new drug reimportation program in Burlington.
In Candidate Clavelle's view, however, "The law is open to interpretation." The FDA, he noted, "has issued an advisory saying they would not prosecute folks traveling into Canada and returning with prescription drugs. The only difference here is that we're facilitating the access through the mail, rather than having to drive across the border. To me it makes a whole lot of sense."
No question, a Gov. Clavelle would move quickly to establish a similar program to lower prescription drug costs for all state workers.
It's but one of many clear and distinct policy differences between this year's gubernatorial contenders.
Skipping Out? -- Seven Days has learned that Vermont's Republican National Committee-man is stepping down. Maplefields mini-mart chain owner Skip Vallee confirmed Tuesday that he will not be a candidate for reelection to the post at the GOP's May meeting. Vallee, 43, has held the job for five years.
During that time the Repub-licans won the White House, the Vermont House, the Governor's office and the Lite-Gov's office. The GOP also lost a U.S. Senate seat, and briefly the Senate majority, when Jeezum Jim Jeffords switched to Independent.
Gasoline Vallee's term runs out following the Republican National Convention this summer. He insists he'll continue to be involved in politics. His focus now, he said, is getting George Bush and Jim Douglas reelected.
"I've done it for five years," said Skipster, "and it's time to have someone else take a turn."
Naturally there's speculation Vallee will run for something in the 2006 cycle. Many recall his unsuccessful bid for a Chittenden County state senate seat a few years back. Skip set the all-time Vermont spending record for a legislative seat -- around $130,000.
"I feel a lot better about money spent," said Skip, "now that I see what Howard Dean spent for 200 delegates."
So far, sources say, four Republicans are in the running to replace Vallee: Jack Lindley of Montpelier, Rep. George Schiavone of Shelburne, Rand Larson of Richmond, and former GOP state chair Joe Acinapura of Brandon.
So much for young blood, eh?