Saturday, January 24, 2015

Montpeculiar: Five Years Later, Professor Jim Douglas Returns

Posted By on Sat, Jan 24, 2015 at 9:21 AM

Former governor Jim Douglas and his official portrait, painted by Kate Gridley - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Former governor Jim Douglas and his official portrait, painted by Kate Gridley
Montpeculiar is an occasional feature on life and times in the Vermont Statehouse.

As he has every January for the past five years, former governor Jim Douglas descended upon the Statehouse last week with a small crowd of smartly dressed college kids in tow.

Like a star quarterback returning to his alma mater, the Middlebury Republican gripped and grinned his way through the state capitol, hugging old friends and cracking corny jokes.

“Madame chair-babe!” Douglas exclaimed as Sen. Peg Flory (R-Rutland), the Senate Institutions Committee chair, approached him in the ornate Cedar Creek Room.

“There’s a long story,” Flory explained to a red-faced reporter before turning back to the governor emeritus. “How are you? It’s so good to see you.”

“It’s nice to be seen, except I keep looking older than the fella on the wall,” Douglas said, gesturing to Kate Gridley's portrait of himself hanging just outside the governor’s ceremonial office.

“We all are,” Flory remarked as she carried on toward the Statehouse cafeteria.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Bosnian Refugee Sakoc Convicted; Prosecutors To Seek Deportation

Posted By on Fri, Jan 23, 2015 at 6:43 PM

  • Courtesy of Elizabeth Tailer
  • Edin Sakoc
A jury this afternoon convicted a refugee accused of rape during the Bosnian war of lying to immigration officials in order to gain U.S. citizenship. 

After 12 hours of deliberation, a jury of eight women and four men found Edin Sakoc guilty on a charge of unlawful procurement of naturalization. He now faces a potential prison term and deportation. 

Sakoc sat stone-faced as the verdict was read in U.S. District Court in Burlington, just as he had throughout his two-week trial. After jurors left the courtroom, he exchanged handshakes and hugs with his attorneys and shrugged his shoulders.

Afterward, prosecutors said they will seek to deport Sakoc, 55, who does not have a prior criminal record. The conviction can also carry a 10-year prison sentence.

Judge William Sessions III released Sakoc to live with friends in Essex Junction while awaiting his sentencing later this year.
He's told his lawyers he hasn't committed any crime, and his family and those who know him believe in him, defense attorney Steven Barth said afterward.

“It is an important case because we have laws that govern immigration into this country and when we receive information that raises questions about whether a person has abused that system in coming in, there’s an obligation to investigate it and follow through,” Acting U.S. Attorney Eugenia Cowles said.

Sakoc’s attorneys said they would file an appeal.

“It would be a tragedy for him to be deported,” attorney David McColgin said. “It would have a terrible impact on him and his family.” Sakoc has a wife and 7-year-old daughter in Vermont. He also has an adult son and a grandchild in Bosnia.

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Liberal Activist Enters Mayoral Race

Posted By on Fri, Jan 23, 2015 at 5:23 PM

  • Courtesy: Greg Guma
Greg Guma announced that he's running for mayor of Burlington as an independent. "The race is on ..." read his email announcement.

The local writer and activist started testing the waters publicly in November, but appeared to back off from the idea. Friday, he told supporters that he had "finally reached the conclusion that my presence in the race was needed, and also that a successful campaign is possible." 

Guma, whose decision comes just ahead of the January 26 filing deadline for candidates, said he's collected more than the 150 signatures required and plans to submit them Monday.

The candidate count stands at four: Democratic incumbent Miro Weinberger, Progressive Steve Goodkind, Libertarian Loyal Ploof and Guma. 

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Media Note: Montpelier Rejects Newspaper's Funding Request

Posted By on Fri, Jan 23, 2015 at 1:54 PM

The Bridge's January 22 issue - SCREENSHOT
  • Screenshot
  • The Bridge's January 22 issue
The Montpelier City Council on Thursday unanimously opposed a request from a community newspaper for nearly $30,000 in municipal funding.

Speaking prior to the vote at city hall Thursday evening, each councilor expressed personal support for the Bridge, a free, twice-monthly publication. But they said it would be inappropriate, and potentially illegal, to appropriate city funds to a for-profit entity — even one that's running in the red.

"That's a non-starter for me," Councilor Tom Golonka (District 1) said. "I have to hold your group to the same standard I'm holding every other group that comes to the city of Montpelier and asks for funding."

Nat Frothingham, the Bridge's editor and publisher, said he submitted a petition with close to 700 signatures Thursday afternoon requesting a $27,254 appropriation from the city. That would require an affirmative vote by the council to place the request on the Town Meeting Day ballot and approval by city residents in March. 

Frothingham, who helped found the newspaper 21 years ago, told councilors Thursday that he was "not initially enthusiastic" about asking voters for support because, he said, it's been "a tough year" for many Montpelier residents. 

"However, I overcame that reluctance because I thought it would give us a wonderful opportunity to have face-to-face encounters with 600 to 700 voters in town, and I thought it was important for the community newspaper to be in touch and not to sit in our offices and slowly sink under the waves," he said. 

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Jury Deliberating Fate of Bosnian Refugee

Posted By on Fri, Jan 23, 2015 at 1:11 PM

Updated, 3:39 p.m. on 1/23/2015: Jurors have found Edin Sakoc guilty of lying to immigration authorities in a verdict this afternoon. He was being released to home confinement; federal authorities indicated they will seek to deport him.

Jurors are now in their second day and ninth hour of deliberating the fate of Edin Sakoc, the Burlington man charged with lying to immigration officials about violent acts he allegedly committed during the Bosnian War. Prosecutors say that Sakoc, a 55-year-old father who has lived in Vermont for more than a decade, raped a woman and left her at a prison camp. They say Sakoc stood by while a soldier shot two women, and then helped him drag their bodies away. He is charged with lying about those acts while applying for American citizenship.

  • Aaron Shrewsbury
  • Edin Sakoc
So what are jurors trying to sort out?

Last night, after deliberating for an hour, jurors requested to hear nearly two hours of testimony offered during the trial. This morning, they asked the judge if they could have a dictionary to look up the meaning of the word “persecution,” one of many words used in questions on immigration forms. (Judge William Sessions III denied the request; no dictionary had been introduced into evidence.)

What could be going on in the jury room?

First, a big disclaimer: Lawyers will tell you that the best way to look foolish is to try and predict what a jury is doing by interpreting the length of their deliberations and the nature of their questions. But for the sake of discussion, please excuse my foolishness. 

Jurors could be hopelessly deadlocked. There could be one holdout. They could have reached a tentative decision but want to make sure they are right. They may have held out for a free lunch. (Don’t laugh. Rare is the jury that will return a verdict while the time for their next free meal is near.) They could be scheming for ways to get to serve on this dude’s trial.

But as we wait for a decision, let's consider some unique features in this case.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Centrist Lawmakers Pitch New Health Exchange Option

Posted By on Thu, Jan 22, 2015 at 5:49 PM

Reps. Patti Komline and Heidi Scheuermann - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Reps. Patti Komline and Heidi Scheuermann
A tri-partisan group of Vermont lawmakers on Thursday called for the state to partner with the federal government to help run its health insurance exchange.

Members of the centrist coalition said Vermont should follow the lead of Oregon, Nevada and New Mexico in transitioning Vermont Health Connect to what's known as a federally supported, state-based marketplace. Such arrangements leave the states largely in charge of their health exchanges, but take advantage of federal information technology systems.

"What we have here today is a viable alternative," Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset) said at a Statehouse press conference. "We're not just playing political games with it."

Joining Komline in proposing the idea were Reps. Jim Condon (D-Colchester), Adam Greshin (I-Warren) and Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe). They said they were fed up with ongoing technical problems plaguing Vermont Health Connect, a state-based exchange originally built by contractor CGI and now operated by Optum.

"Vermonters deserve a functioning insurance portal," Condon said. "And they don't have that yet."

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In Roll-Call Vote, Vermont House Adopts Abortion Rights Resolution

Posted By on Thu, Jan 22, 2015 at 4:50 PM

Rep. Vicki Strong listens as the House debates an abortion resolution. - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Rep. Vicki Strong listens as the House debates an abortion resolution.
Forty-two years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in its Roe v. Wade decision, Vermont pro-choice activists gathered in a Statehouse meeting room Thursday morning to remind one another that Congress and other states are making moves to restrict access to abortion.

“It’s not a fight that’s going to go away,” former Gov. Madeleine Kunin told those attending the gathering, which was organized by Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.

In the nearby Statehouse cafeteria, tables were littered with fliers emphasizing the value of adoption and offering testimonials from women who regretted abortions. The Vermont Right to Life Committee spent $20,000 to put copies of the fliers in 21 publications around Vermont and will be airing a pro-adoption television ad, executive director Mary Hahn Beerworth said.

“This is going to be a big agenda item for us,” Beerworth said.

By Thursday afternoon, the abortion issue hit the House floor, even though there is no active legislation in Vermont to change state abortion law. Pro-choice activists insisted on a roll-call vote on a resolution recognizing the Roe v. Wade anniversary. The resolution comes up virtually every year, but it's rare for lawmakers to insist on putting members on-record with a roll-call vote.

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Jurors Go Home Without Returning Verdict in Bosnian Refugee Trial

Posted By on Thu, Jan 22, 2015 at 4:05 PM

Updated at 9 p.m. 1/22/15.

The case against a Burlington man charged with concealing violent crimes he allegedly committed during the Bosnian War was littered with false accusations and contradictory testimony, his attorney said in closing arguments today
  • Courtesy of Beth Tailer
  • Edin Sakoc
Jurors began deliberating the fate of Edin Sakoc at 2:15 p.m. after hearing from attorneys for the final time in the two-week trial.  After nearly six hours of deliberations, jurors went home shortly before 8 p.m. without reaching a verdict. They were scheduled to return in the morning.

Sakoc, 55, faces several years in prison and possible deportation if convicted of lying to immigration officials about his conduct during the Balkans conflict. 

Sakoc is accused of kidnapping and raping one woman and assisting a soldier who murdered two other women in 1992. He is a Muslim, and the women he is accused of targeting are ethnic Serbs. The two groups clashed violently during the early 1990s war.

Sakoc won refugee status in 2001, settled in Vermont, and eventually obtained citizenship. 

During a nearly 90-minute closing statement, defense attorney Steven Barth said that Sakoc had not lied to immigration officers because nothing he did in Bosnia qualified as a crime that he was required to disclose. Barth told jurors that Sakoc never committed a rape, and was acting on orders when assisting a fellow soldier who murdered two women. 

"In order to lie you have to know and believe that what you are saying is not true," Barth told a U.S. District Court jury in Burlington. "The government simply cannot prove its case because their narrative of what happened is based on testimony that is so full of inconsistencies, changing statements and outright fabrications made by [people] with ingrained prejudices."

But prosecutors said witnesses had supplied "overwhelming" evidence that Sakoc engaged in heinous crimes that he knowingly concealed. 

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Land Lovers Speak Out Against Burlington College Development Deal

Posted By on Thu, Jan 22, 2015 at 1:13 PM

Jamison Clark, a sophomore from Rock Point School, spoke in favor of preserving the land behind Burlington College. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Jamison Clark, a sophomore from Rock Point School, spoke in favor of preserving the land behind Burlington College.
Meetings at Burlington City Hall Auditorium typically start with the pledge of allegiance. The Save Open Space - Burlington Summit on Wednesday night began with a prayer led by an Abenaki elder. Then a drum beat became audible and got increasingly louder, as a group of six emerged on stage, chanting a Native American song. 

The panel presentation and public forum that followed was about saving one beloved and highly valuable tract of open space in the Queen City: the lakeside land behind Burlington College. The school owns an expansive meadow and a small sandplain forest that abuts Lake Champlain.

Three months ago Mike Smith, the college’s interim president at the time, announced a plan to sell most of the school’s 33-acre campus to local developer, Eric Farrell, for roughly $7.5 million. If not for the sale, Smith said the struggling institution would likely shut down within a year.

The school said it would entertain an alternative offer and set a 60-day deadline — which passed last week — for any conservation group to buy the development rights (not the land itself) for $7 million. Spokeswoman Coralee Holm said the college received no bids. Also, the closing of the sale, originally scheduled for last week, has been delayed until early February, according the college.

The real estate transaction between Burlington College and Farrell is private, but Vermonters have been allowed to roam the lakeside property for decades, as if it were public. Roughly 200 people attended Wednesday's event, which was organized by a small group of residents who have been meeting weekly to discuss preserving the land. At one point, panelist Alicia Daniel, who also lectures at UVM, asked how many in the audience had spent time exploring the woods and meadows in question. Virtually everyone — from high school students to senior citizens — raised their hands. 

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Sanders Uses Citizens United Anniversary to Raise Campaign Cash

Posted By on Thu, Jan 22, 2015 at 10:58 AM

Sanders speaks in September 2014 at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa - FILE: ADAM BURKE
  • File: Adam Burke
  • Sanders speaks in September 2014 at Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa
On Wednesday's fifth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) filed a constitutional amendment to limit the role of money in politics.

But he also used the occasion to build out his own email lists and lay the groundwork for a fundraising pitch, according to an email chain inadvertently sent to Seven Days. And in an exchange with campaign and Senate staff members planning the Citizens United anniversary, Sanders appeared focused on raising money from Washington, D.C., political action committees.

"YES. Let's do it," the senator wrote his advisers, referring to a Citizens United-focused fundraising pitch. "How are you doing on the DC PAC fundraiser? Thanks. B."

In the emails, campaign aide Nick Carter asked his boss to approve a collaboration between the Sanders campaign and Progressives United, a political action committee founded by former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold. Together, Carter explained, the two entities would send an email on the anniversary of Citizens United asking supporters to sign a petition saying "Democracy's Not for Sale."

Doing so, Carter wrote, would help "to grow our lists and send a message to legislative leadership to stand strong for progressive values." Later, Carter suggested, the Sanders campaign would return to those who signed the petition to ask for campaign cash.

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