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Friday, April 22, 2016

Vermont House Tangles Over Shumlin Staff Emails

Posted By on Fri, Apr 22, 2016 at 6:18 PM

click to enlarge The Vermont House chamber - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • The Vermont House chamber
Democratic leaders of the Vermont House sought to quash a resolution Friday calling on Gov. Peter Shumlin to publicly release emails his legal counsel attempted to delete. 

The non-binding measure, sponsored by Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), asks the administration to hand over email accounts belonging to five former Shumlin staff members who left state employ more than three years ago. Shumlin’s lawyer, Sarah London, asked a state information technology officer earlier this month to delete the accounts as part of its archiving process. Critics have questioned whether her request was prompted by a looming crackdown on two politically connected Northeast Kingdom developers — a charge the administration has repeatedly denied

Speaking on the House floor Friday afternoon, Pearson argued that the Shumlin administration could easily restore trust by handing over the emails. 

“The point is that there’s an assertion of no wrongdoing,” he said. “Maybe it’s perfectly standard. But we have the opportunity to verify that. We’ve gotta shine some light on this and make sure nothing suspicious is happening.”

Rep. Willem Jewett (D-Ripton), vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee and a former majority leader, disagreed. He said that Pearson’s request could interfere with ongoing federal and state enforcement actions against the developers, Ariel Quiros and Bill Stenger, who have been accused of fraud. 

“I think we need to stand firm and respect the investigations that are ongoing,” he said. “We need to acknowledge how serious this is and the harm this has done and will continue to do.”

To that end, Jewett introduced his own resolution, which he hoped to substitute for Pearson’s. Rather than explicitly call for the release of the documents, Jewett’s resolution urges Attorney General Bill Sorrell to determine which records “should lawfully be withheld and which should be publicly released in response to a public records request.” It also expresses support for Sorrell’s investigation and urges the administration to “promptly respond” to public records requests.

As the House debated the competing resolutions, Shumlin spokesman Scott Coriell took to Twitter to lambaste Pearson — and the legislature. 

First he noted that while his boss was meeting with Newport Mayor Paul Monette on Thursday to discuss the impact of the fraud case on the Northeast Kingdom, Pearson “plotted how best to grandstand. You decide what is a better use of time.”

As Pearson spoke on the floor, Coriell wrote, “The more @RepCP talks, the clearer it becomes that he has no idea what he is talking about.” Later, he wrote, “What’s ironic is that the #vt Legislature considers itself exempt from disclosing their emails.”

Coriell’s tweets quickly made their way into the debate. 

“There have been Twitter comments made by a member of the administration basically, in my view, attacking the sponsor of the resolution and making comments about the fact that House members should have their emails released,” Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) told his colleagues. “If anybody wants my emails, you got ’em. I have nothing to hide. You can tag my emails anytime.”

The debate made strange bedfellows. Two prominent Republicans, Wright and Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield), joined left-leaning independent Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre City) and right-leaning Democratic Rep. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington) arguing in favor of Pearson’s resolution. 

Poirier said that many of his constituents believed that Montpelier politicians were going to “sweep this under the rug,” referring to the fraud case and its political implications. Wright said that only the emails’ release could lift the “cloud of suspicion across the state.” 

But the leaders of both the House Democratic and Republican caucuses, Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) and Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton), sided with Jewett. 

“It shows that we’re committed to our colleagues and our friends in the Northeast Kingdom,” Turner said of Jewett’s substitute resolution. “But it doesn’t go into a political arena that we don’t want to today.”

After 40 minutes of debate, House members appeared to be getting restless. Noting that the Passover holiday was approaching, Wright moved to delay a roll-call vote on the substitution request until Tuesday. 

His colleagues heartily agreed. 

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

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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