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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Donovan Looking into Vermont National Guard Sexual Assault Allegation

Posted By on Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 1:32 PM

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Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan says he's "troubled" by an allegation of sexual assault in the Vermont National Guard and plans to look into the matter.

But given the anonymous nature of the accusation — in an unsigned letter shared with state legislators — and the length of time since the alleged incident, he's unsure whether his office will be able to launch a formal investigation.

"It's an interesting dilemma given the lack of a complaint to law enforcement, which would trigger an investigation," Donovan said Thursday. "At the same time, we're looking at a situation where we may have a sexual predator living in our community."

Donovan was referring to allegations made in an anonymous letter claiming that a senior Guard officer sexually assaulted another Guard member in December 2007. The letter further claimed that two other senior Guard officers — retired Brig. Gen. Jonathan Farnham and acting Adj. Gen. Thomas Drew — were made aware of the alleged assault and did not report it to civilian law enforcement authorities. 

The letter, provided to Rep. George Till (D-Jericho) two weeks ago, prompted Farnham on Monday to withdraw from the race to become the state's next adjutant general. Citing privacy constraints, neither Farnham nor Drew have been able to provide their side of the story, though Farnham disputed the letter's account in a written statement.

After Seven Days contacted Donovan's office Thursday morning seeking comment on the situation, the prosecutor reached out to the Vermont Guard to request information about the alleged incident. Donovan says a Guard spokesman declined the request, citing federal privacy rules.

"I'm not surprised. I respect it," Donovan said of the decision.

Donovan now plans to reach out to lawmakers involved in Statehouse discussions surrounding Farnham's candidacy to request more information about the letter's author, who met with lawmakers and also spoke with Seven Days, but who has requested anonymity.

"I need a name or we need a complaint to get started," Donovan said.

The statute of limitations for non-aggravated sexual assault is six years, according to Donovan's office. The letter indicates that the alleged incident took place a little more than five years ago.

Donovan says he's taking the situation seriously. He's particularly concerned about the letter writer's claim that "two separate formal investigations" initiated by the Guard a year after the incident supported the victim's claim and discovered that the perpetrator "had a history of sexually preying on subordinates both in and out of state." The victim further alleges that the perpetrator "was ultimately only given a verbal reprimand and was reassigned."

Said Donovan, "Based on your article, it appears that there's an individual in the National Guard who, if not lives in Chittenden County, works in Chittenden County, who has engaged in, at the very least, unwanted sexual advances toward women in this community and has not been deterred from that conduct based on any sort of response either from the Guard or law enforcement."

He added, "We're concerned because if conduct goes unchecked, it could happen again."

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Separately, Gov. Peter Shumlin briefly addressed the situation at a press conference Wednesday in Barre. He expressed confidence in the Guard, but said sexual assault and harassment complaints must be taken seriously.

"As commander in chief of the guard, I feel strongly that we need to join the federal military in ensuring that everyone who is willing to serve their country and sacrifice their life for us is treated with dignity and respect," Shumlin said. "That's exactly what we're going to make sure happens."

Asked if he was concerned that two senior officers were allegedly aware of the incident and did not immediately address it, Shumlin said, "I want to make clear that the allegations we're referring to took place under another governor and a different adjutant general... Obviously, there can't be a Vermonter who wouldn't be concerned about any allegation against anyone in Vermont that's unfair and involves harassment. On the other hand, it was six years ago and clearly it was before I was involved."

Shumlin said he had no immediate plans to formally address the situation.

"I believe that the policies are in place right now to ensure that everyone can serve with dignity. And I believe the person who fielded this particular complaint indicated this is not a widespread challenge, and she has confidence this is not an epidemic and it's being taken seriously."

Photo of Donovan by Andy Bromage. Photo of Shumlin by Paul Heintz.

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Bio:
Paul Heintz is a staff writer and political editor for Seven Days. He wrote the "Fair Game" political column from May 2012 through December 2016.

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