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Vermont Gambles with Diamond Jim Douglas 

Inside Track

Place your bets, folks, because it's time for us to have some fun in the Green Mountains, and Diamond Jim Douglas is the man to lead the way. Powerball lottery tickets and pari-mutuel horse racing are on the Douglas front burner. And surely, slot machines and blackjack tables can't be too far behind.

Last week, our Republican governor-elect gave us the first peek at what a Jim Douglas administration will look like. His personal staff will be run by the former Statehouse lobbyists for the banking industry and the Chamber of Commerce. Hey, it's a new day!

Chief of Staff Tim Hayward of the Bankers Association has been a Montpelier insider for years. So has his deputy, Betsy Bishop, who lobbied the hallways for the state chamber. They'll both be missed by the gossipy regulars who hang out like bats in the hallowed Statehouse cafeteria each winter.

But the real news is that Diamond Jim is gambling-friendly. His predecessor, Gov. Howard Dean, is not. Candidate Douglas campaigned on an "It's time for a change" platform. We didn't know he meant chump change. And don't be surprised if the Nevada casino crowd returns to Montpelier this coming session.

After all, just next door George Pataki, the Republican governor of New York, wants to install slot machines at the state's horse-racing tracks. Why should New York get all the action?

Diamond Jim's closest economic advisor is Harlan Sylvester, of Salomon Smith Barney. Ol' Harlan is a Kentucky Derby regular and chairman of Vermont's little-known state racing commission. Getting the ponies running again in Pownal is an excellent first step. Can off-track-betting parlors be far behind?

Diamond Jim's campaign promised jobs for Vermonters, but until last week, Mr. Douglas never really got into the specifics.

Media Notes -- We were first alerted to Times Argus managing editor Scott Fletcher's work back in September. He'd written a page-one story about a 16-year-old girl he'd met at a "pocket park" on State Street in Montpelier. According to Fletcher's article, "DeeDee" was also a heroin addict and a prostitute.

Not exactly Vermont Life material, eh?

Fletcher's well-written story read like a scene from a novel, or an old column by the Boston Globe's Mike Barnicle. Here's a small taste:

"Her arms are spread wide along the top of the bench, her face hidden behind an expensive pair of sunglasses. She is wearing a very tight white tanktop and a very short, black miniskirt, both of which appear to be too small for her. A pair of black heels completes the day's ensemble.

"As a man approaches and takes a seat at the end of the bench, she throws her chest out and appears to be stretching. As a passerby, you might not know what she is buying, but there is no doubt what she is selling.

"Her name is DeeDee. She wants heroin. And she will do whatever you want to get it.

"'You got some?' she asks her benchmate, slowly crossing and then uncrossing her legs. 'I want some.'

"She leans forward and her tanktop strains mightily against her chest as she displays her wares.

"'You want some?' she whispers. 'Cause if you want some, I got what you want. You take care of me and I'll take care of you.'"

The source who called us about the story had long been skeptical about Fletcher. The "DeeDee" story put him over the edge. For one thing, he said, the benches in the pocket park where Fletcher described meeting DeeDee do not have backs for her to "spread her arms wide on."

And, surely, if such a saucy little hooker were propositioning men in the heart of tiny downtown Montpeculiar, somebody else would have noticed her, right?

On Monday morning, Editor Fletcher was called into the office of publisher R. John Mitchell and fired. Mitchell later told the press the DeeDee story was the reason. The Times Argus had received complaints about its accuracy. Mitchell told WDEV that "members of the community had challenged us on whether the person really existed that he wrote about. When we checked out her name, date of birth and arrest record, we couldn't prove that, uh, she existed."

Fletcher, 36, a St. Michael's grad, stands by his story.

"The punishment fits the crime," he told Seven Days on Tuesday, "but I didn't do the crime."

Fletcher insisted the girl does exist, but he has no way of finding her and proving it. He said his encounter with "DeeDee" took about "one minute." The alleged interview took up two pages in his notebook, he said.

When we brought up the discrepancy about there being no backs on the benches in the State Street pocket park for DeeDee to spread her arms on, Fletcher quickly said the encounter actually occurred "on a bench on State Street near the pocket park," rather than in the park as he as originally reported.

Sources at the TA also tell us the DeeDee story wasn't the first one that raised doubts.

Last April the TA ran two news stories by a correspondent named "Christian Murphy." Both were very well written. One was about a visit to Barre by a few New England Patriots football stars. Murphy quoted a Barre man, who TA sources say is not listed in the phone book and cannot be found. The story also contained three paragraphs that were almost identical to the Associated Press story on the same event.

Some suspected Fletcher, described as a "workaholic," had actually written the Murphy stories himself, since no one had ever heard of Mr. Murphy before. And no one has heard from Mr. Murphy since.

In fact, Fletcher told us this week that he has no idea who "Christian Murphy" is.

The Irishman inside us must add that we've never heard of a "Murphy" with "Christian" for a first name. It's got a fictional ring to it like "Mohammed Goldberg." If you're out there, Christian, please get in touch. Love a wee chat.

Editor Fletcher's firing comes at a very awkward time for Boss Mitchell. Just last week we reported on Mitchell's firing of the distinguished managing editor at his other paper -- the Rutland Herald. The two dismissals appear completely unrelated and purely coincidental.

Indeed, interviews with current and former Mitchell employees indicate Herald managing editor Steve Baumann, unlike Fletcher, was highly respected by the folks under him. In fact, several said they brought their suspicions about Fletcher to Mitchell's attention long ago, were politely thanked for their input and then sat back and watched nothing happen. Now something has happened. Finally.

Mitchell, middle-aged and Harvard-educated, inherited the papers from his distinguished dad. (R. John always reminds us of the adage: You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him much.)

Together, the Herald and the TA provided a vital homegrown counterpoint to Vermont's largest daily, The Burlington Free Press, which is owned by the multinational media giant Gannett. It wasn't so long ago folks used to say that you had to read the Rutland Herald and the TA to find out what was really going on in Vermont.

Now, sadly, it appears that what's really going on in Ver-mont is the gutting of a once proud journalistic tradition.

Sometimes, people who inherit newspapers aren't the best qualified people to run them.

C'est la vie.

P.S. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike Barnicle was fired by the Boston Globe over complaints about the authenticity of a few of the characters he described in a 1995 column. As in Fletcher's case, the Globe couldn't prove the people in a Barnicle tearjerker actually existed.

Mary Fanny Crooks? -- Tough words from Gov. Howard Dean in Monday's Rutland Herald. Ho-Ho referred to former Fletcher Allen Health Care CEO Bill Boettcher and his management cronies as a bunch of "crooks." Dean was addressing the fact that the Mary Fanny's mammoth $174 million Renaissance Project now has a $326 million price tag.

Boettcher resigned in disgrace a couple months ago and took a $750,000 golden parachute with him. The whole mess is under investigation. Boettcher's management team isn't looking so good right now.

For example, there's Boss Bill's right-hand man Thad Krupka, chief operating officer. Just last February, Krupka expressed this opinion of Boettcher in a hospital publication:

"I want you to know," said Krupka, "that I feel truly fortunate to have Bill Boettcher as CEO. I have worked with many exceptional leaders over the years, including several Surgeons General of the Army, and rarely a day goes by that I don't learn something new from Bill. He is a very talented and gifted leader, and the fact that he chose to come to Fletcher Allen speaks volumes about the quality of this organization and the potential he sees here."

What a difference a few months can make, eh?

"These people were crooks that did this," said Gov. Dean, "and I hope they get criminally prosecuted." Ho-Ho also charged that the Mary Fanny's board of trustees "clearly is at fault here."

But Congressman Bernie Sanders doesn't think Dean is going anywhere near far enough. As we go to press on Tuesday, Ol' Bernardo is scheduled to weigh in Wednesday on the Mary Fanny mess.

Sources tell Seven Days Sanders will not only call for the removal of all the members of the current Boettcher board of trustees, but he will also demand the board be entirely restructured. Just busting a few "crooks," as Dr. Dean calls them, isn't enough. The problem, in the congressman's view, is "systemic."

Sanders will call for a new Mary Fanny board comprising representatives of the community, the public sector, workers and medical people.

Not such a radical idea, eh?

Mayor's Race -- Now that winter has arrived, local politicos are focusing on the March 2003 election and, specifically, on the race for mayor of Burlington. For the first time, the winner will get to serve a three-year instead of two-year term.

The Democrat candidate will be Ward 6 City Councilor Andy Montroll. He's a quiet, soft-spoken liberal in the Doug Racine mold.

The Republicans are expected to participate and, rather than go to a seasoned veteran like Councilor Kevin Curley, may put up one of their new breed of conservative young turks.

Of course, the incumbent, Progressive Mayor Peter Clavelle, will be the favorite, but in a three-way shoot-out, one just never knows.

First elected mayor in 1989, Clavelle has proven his mettle -- just look around at Big Bad Burlap. It's not perfect, but it is one of the most livable cities you'll ever see. The secret's out.

Clavelle's solid leadership skills are proven. And right now those skills are being employed to end the suicidal split between Ver-mont Democrats and Vermont Progressives. It's a split that assures Republican victories in statewide races like the recent win enjoyed by Brian "41 Percent" Dubie in the Lite-Gov race.

For example, Clavelle told Seven Days he is encouraging his Progressive friends and allies to support Burlington Democrat Rep. John Tracy's candidacy for Speaker of the House. The Progs hold just four seats in the 150-seat House and there are three Independents.

Tracy's in play because rookie Republican Speaker Walter Freed's homophobic majority evaporated on Election Day. The Duke of Dorset lost 10 GOP seats. Come January 8, Freed could lose the reserved parking space for his flashy car collection.

Just two years ago, Sir Walter's closest political advisor/strategist, George McNeill of Danby, basked in the limelight of victory lane. He fancied himself a political genius. But this time, Georgie Porgie didn't have the fear and anger over the passage of our landmark civil-unions law as an issue. Mr. McNeill wasn't able to turn homophobia into Republican votes like he did in 2000 and, as a result, his pal, the Duke of Dorset, is in a fight for political survival.

"It would be absolutely foolhardy," said Clavelle, "for anyone with Progressive politics to support Walter."

As for the Progressive-Demo-crat split of the Vermont left, Clavelle said, "There has to be some sort of political fusion that makes sense."

Good luck, Mayor Moonie.

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

Bio:
Peter Freyne, 1949-2009, wrote the weekly political column "Inside Track," which originated in the Vanguard Press in the mid 1980s; he brought it to Seven Days in 1995. He retired it shortly before his death in January, 2009. We all miss him.

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