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Sunday, March 24, 2019

Mueller Summary Insufficient, Says Vermont Congressional Delegation

Posted By and on Sun, Mar 24, 2019 at 3:11 PM

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) speaks to the media at Burlington International Airport Sunday. - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) speaks to the media at Burlington International Airport Sunday.

Updated at 11:39 p.m.

Vermont’s congressional delegation isn’t going to settle for a four-page summary.

Responding Sunday to the release of the topline findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Donald Trump, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) called for the public release of Mueller’s full report.

“I don’t want a summary of the report,” Sanders said during a presidential campaign rally in San Francisco. “I want the whole damn report, because nobody, especially this president, is above the law.”

Two days after Mueller closed his 22-month probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Attorney General William Barr summarized Mueller’s findings in a four-page letter to Congress. According to the AG, Mueller found no evidence that Trump’s campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government to swing the election.

As to whether Trump obstructed justice, Barr wrote that Mueller “did not draw a conclusion — one way or the other." He quoted Mueller as saying that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Barr added that, after reviewing the report, he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had determined that Trump had not obstructed justice.

In a statement issued later Sunday, Leahy expressed incredulity that “after only 48 hours to review [Mueller’s report] and without the benefit of an interview with the president,” Barr had concluded that Trump had committed no crimes.

“I forcefully urge Attorney General Barr — in the interests of the integrity of the Justice Department, in the interests of the American people, in the interest of the rule of law — to publicly release the full Mueller report,” Leahy wrote. “Any attempt to hide swaths of the Mueller report from public scrutiny will only fuel suspicions that President Trump’s Justice Department, which represents the United States, is playing the role of President Trump’s defense team. We all deserve better.”

Welch was out of state and unavailable for an interview Sunday, according to spokesperson Kate Hamilton. She said in a written statement that he agreed that the full report should be made public “so that Congress and the American people can assess the merits of the conclusions reached by both the Special Counsel and the Attorney General.”

If Barr refuses to do so, Hamilton wrote, Welch “will advocate for Congress to secure it by subpoena.”

Earlier Sunday, Leahy told reporters at Burlington International Airport that he was returning to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with Department of Justice officials. He said he would urge them to make the report public. “The American people paid for it,” he said. “The American people should see it.”

Barr “refused to commit to releasing the report” during his confirmation hearing last month, Leahy wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published Friday.  And Barr, in a letter Friday to congressional leaders, would only say he was “committed to as much transparency as possible."

Barr wrote that he would determine what to release to Congress and the public “consistent with the law, including the Special Counsel regulations and the Department’s long-standing practices and policies.”

Those caveats, Leahy said, “give me pause” because they could be used by the department to justify withholding information from the public inappropriately. Doing so would be a “bad, bad, mistake,” the Vermont senator added.

The most senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee expected a detailed briefing on Mueller’s findings Sunday evening. He said he planned to press officials for more than just the “principal conclusions” of the report Barr referenced in his letter.

“I expect a lot more than conclusions. The conclusions they could put on a post card. I want to see a lot more than that,” Leahy said.

The Sunday evening briefing could be followed by a classified briefing Monday morning. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has rejected talk of classified briefings as a way to keep information in the Mueller report secret. But if one were held, Leahy said he would attend and make the case that only legitimately classified material — such as investigatory methods or information provided by foreign governments — should be withheld from the public version of the report.

“I have a feeling there is going to be very, very little that is going to be classified,” Leahy said.

The former state’s attorney in Chittenden County said it is common for  prosecutors in complex investigations to file certain charges but not others, despite additional evidence of wrongdoing. If Mueller is called before Congress to testify, which Leahy said is possible, he’d likely pursue such a line of inquiry.

“I’d like to ask him. ‘Were there things that you left out of the indictments that you might have put in?'” he said.

Leahy spent his weeklong break from Congress at his home in Middlesex but also attended a number of events around the state, including a visit to the Statehouse. Everyone he met was in agreement on the report, Leahy said.

“I’ve talked with hundreds of Vermonters just this week alone all over the state. They are all saying basically the same thing: ‘Let us know what’s going on,’” Leahy said. “And I agree with them.”

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Friday, March 22, 2019

Burlington City Councilor Wants to Amend Conflict of Interest Policy

Posted By on Fri, Mar 22, 2019 at 6:18 PM

Dave Hartnett - FILE: OLIVER PARINI
  • File: Oliver Parini
  • Dave Hartnett
A Burlington City Council member wants to revamp the city's conflict of interest policy.

Currently, a councilor or member of a city board must recuse themselves from a vote or discussion if he or she — or a family member — will benefit financially from the matter at hand. Under the current rules outlined in the city charter, officials do not have to provide details about the conflict.

That's not good enough for Councilor Dave Hartnett (D-North District).

"I think the language is, at best, vague," he said. "We need to be accountable and we need to be transparent."

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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Vermont Senate Backs 24-Hour Waiting Period for Gun Sales

Posted By on Thu, Mar 21, 2019 at 6:13 PM

Sen. John Rodgers - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • Sen. John Rodgers

The Vermont Senate on Thursday advanced legislation that would impose a 24-hour waiting period on those purchasing handguns. The preliminary vote came despite opposition from gun-rights supporters, who claimed the bill would infringe upon their rights, and from those who said the restrictions weren't strict enough.

The 20-10 vote suggested that supporters in the Senate would be able to override a potential veto from Gov. Phil Scott, who has expressed opposition to new gun laws. The measure is expected to face a final vote in the Senate on Friday and would then move to the Vermont House.

All six Senate Republicans opposed the bill, as did Sens. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle), Alice Nitka (D-Windsor), John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans) and Bobby Starr (D-Essex/Orleans).

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington), said he was proud that the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, found middle ground between the two divergent positions. “I hope folks won’t be put off by the word compromise, because if we’ve come to that, we’re in deep trouble,” Sears said.

Sears, who had previously opposed the measure, said he learned from experts who testified before his committee that suicide attempts with guns are far more successful than by other means, and that those who make such attempts usually do so impulsively.

“The vast majority of the people who decide to commit suicide [do so] based on an impulse, and that decision was made within eight hours,” he said.

If enacted, the law would require gun buyers to wait a day after undergoing a federal criminal background check before taking possession of a firearm.

After the vote, the family of Andrew Black released a statement supporting the Senate's move. The 23-year-old Essex man shot and killed himself in December, hours after buying a gun.

"If this handgun purchase waiting period was the law last year I know it likely would have saved our son’s life,” Alyssa Black wrote. “I sincerely hope that this effort will save other families from experiencing the heartbreak we are going through."

Leading the opposition was Sen. Rodgers, who argued that those who commit mass shootings or suicide are often more influenced by social media than by gun access. “I believe the internet is much more dangerous than firearms are,” Rodgers said.

Similarly, far more teenagers are killed texting while driving than from guns, he said, and yet there is no rush to take phones away from them. He did not mention that lawmakers recently toughened laws against texting while driving.

The Senate rejected an amendment Rodgers offered that would have limited the waiting period to new gun owners. It did approve other suggestions he made, including allowing law enforcement officers from other states and those competing in organized shooting events to possess high-capacity magazines. He said the Second Amendment should not just be viewed as a right for sportsmen.

“It’s about protecting oneself, one’s community, one’s state, one’s country,” Rodgers said.

The Northeast Kingdom Democrat got some backup from Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), who argued that he wouldn’t support a waiting period on a woman’s right to choose, nor would he support one on when newspaper reporters could file their stories.

Benning argued that, while suicides are tragic, there is no evidence that a waiting period would really work. “But make no mistake, it is an impediment placed in the path of someone who would choose to exercise their right to self-defense,” he said.

Sen. Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) said she was disappointed that the bill didn’t impose stricter rules. She grew up in and lives in a rural area and supports firearms for hunting and sport, she said, but is keenly aware of the dangers they present.

“I also know that guns pose a significant public health, domestic violence and public safety threat,” she said. 

The mother of three school-aged children said he she knows firsthand the impact gun violence — especially school shootings — is having on children today. “Our children are stressed and scared and they have been demanding that we do something,” Hardy said.

She said she considered 24 hours too short of a waiting period, noting that many states require waits of a week or more. She also lamented the limitation to handguns, noting that someone could just as easily kill himself, herself or others with a rifle. She said she would support the bill out of the spirit of compromise Sears expressed. 

“More change will come and I will be here in this chamber to help make it happen,” she said.

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Judge Allows Vermont's Opioid Lawsuit Against Purdue Pharma to Proceed

Posted By on Thu, Mar 21, 2019 at 5:49 PM

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan - MARK DAVIS
  • Mark Davis
  • Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan
Vermont's lawsuit against Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma will proceed after a judge denied the company's request to toss out the state's claim that Purdue used deceptive tactics to market the drug.

Chittenden County Superior Court Judge Helen Toor was unmoved by Purdue's argument, among others, that the suit should be dismissed because the opioid epidemic the drugmaker fueled isn't a "public nuisance" under Vermont law.

"It cannot be seriously argued that the impacts of opiate addiction in Vermont have not affected the general public," Toor wrote in a March 18 ruling.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Fee Hike Could Spawn Revenue to Save Salisbury Fish Hatchery

Posted By on Wed, Mar 20, 2019 at 8:56 PM

A child feeding the fish at the hatchery - FILE: MEGAN JAMES/KIDSVT
  • File: Megan James/KidsVT
  • A child feeding the fish at the hatchery

Updated March 21 at 10:04 a.m.

A Vermont fish hatchery slated to close next year over water quality concerns appears to have won a temporary reprieve from Gov. Phil Scott’s budget ax after angler and hunter groups agreed to pay more for licenses.

If approved by the legislature, the deal would provide an additional $310,000 to keep the Salisbury Fish Culture Station open for another year while the state explores ways to prolong its life or move the hatchery operations elsewhere.

“I feel like people have come together in good faith to try to keep the hatchery operating, and they’re working toward that goal,” Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter said Wednesday.

The hatchery, which opened in 1931, raises brook, brown, rainbow and lake trout that produce eggs used by the four other fish hatcheries in the state. Most of the fish stocked in Vermont streams and lakes begin their life cycles in Salisbury.

Wastewater discharged from the facility contains nutrient levels that  exceed water quality standards, according to Julie Moore, secretary of  the Agency of Natural Resources. That water runs into an unnamed tributary of Hanlon Brook that is considered an impaired water body, Moore said.

Upgrading the facility to clean the discharge would cost an estimated $13 million, funds not in the proposed budget. It does include $280,000 to upgrade other hatcheries if Salisbury is forced to close, Porter said. But even if the hatchery operation could be transferred to another facility, the state’s fish production capacity would still drop by 20 percent, he said.

The hatchery deal came to light Tuesday when Rep. Robin Scheu (D-Middlebury) outlined for fellow Democrats the status of a sweeping $9.15 million fee bill making its way through the legislature. The bill calls for raising fees on fishing and hunting licenses by $2 per year, from $26 to $28. Combination licenses would increase $5, from $42 to $47.

That would raise about $150,000 next year. An additional $160,000 would come from the general fund. The Scott administration struck the deal after angling and hunting groups agreed to the modest fee increases to keep the hatchery open for now, Porter said.

Mike Covey, executive director of the Vermont Traditions Coalition, said his members are doing their part and are encouraged to see the Scott administration and legislature doing theirs.

“Hunters, anglers and trappers have long been the backbone of the successful restoration of game and non-game species for all Vermonters and are once more stepping up as expected,” Covey said.

Porter called raising fees a concern. “On the other hand, I think it’s important that we maintain our ability to raise fish for angling and restoration,” he said.

Without the additional funds, the department would have been forced to begin shutting down the facility and laying off some of its four workers.

Porter said his department will analyze a number of future possibilities, including whether the discharge water quality can be improved for less than $13 million.

Moore’s agency has committed to taking another look at how it tests water that leaves the facility, including a method that focuses not on chemical tests but on the health of bugs in the water, she said.

She’s not, however, in favor of just changing the location that water samples come from. About a decade ago the agency moved the sampling spot from Hanlon Brook to the tributary closer to the facility. The goal was to better pinpoint the source of pollution in the brook. Moving the sampling site back to the brook doesn’t seem right to her.

“Then you’re just arguing that the solution to pollution is dilution,” Moore said.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Montpeculiar: Legislators Pour Over Vermont's Happy Hour Ban

Posted By on Tue, Mar 19, 2019 at 8:28 PM

ZERBOR/DREAMSTIME.COM
  • Zerbor/Dreamstime.com

A bill to lift Vermont’s prohibition on happy hour received a spirited response from legislators Tuesday.

The oft-debated idea of allowing restaurants, bars and breweries to sell discounted booze for up to two hours a day had some legislators downright tipsy with anticipation.

montpeculiar2.jpg
“How about a field trip to test it?” quipped Rep. John Killacky (D-South Burlington), a member of the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs, which heard the bill pitched for the first time this session.

“I’ve lived in three states and this is the only one that doesn’t have a happy hour,” Rep. Marianna Gamache (R-Swanton) said wistfully. “I think it’s a good idea.”

Committee chair Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury) had a more sober response, reminding his fellow legislators that if the committee seriously considers the bill its members will undoubtedly hear from residents of Burlington — which has three colleges — concerned about young people overindulging.

Stevens noted there are already some “workarounds” of the law, including “appy hour,” for which appetizers are discounted to draw in hungry patrons. Specific beverages can also be discounted all day, which is why Positive Pie in Montpelier sells Heady Topper for $5 on Tuesdays, he noted.

That prompted Rep. Matt Birong (D-Vergennes) to fondly recall how Three Needs Taproom and Brewery in Burlington used this loophole during its “Duff Hour” specials.

“They would tap a keg of Saranac for $2 a pop, until the keg runs out, starting when the Simpsons started at 4:30 p.m.,” Birong said.

Rep. Matthew Trieber (D-Rockingham) said he sponsored the bill in recognition of the tourist trade connected to the state’s unique craft brewers and distillers.

“We thought this may be a way to help some of our restaurants and bar owners capitalize on that a little bit, and allow some of the local breweries to be tried out at a cheaper price,” Trieber said.

The legislator added that 42 other states in the nation allow happy hours, though he noted Massachusetts does not. He expressed openness to limiting the hours or types of drinks allowed to be sold at reduced prices if the committee had concerns. “Anything is better than nothing,” Trieber said.

Stevens said it’s not clear if his committee “has enough juice” to take on the issue this session, but if it did, “It'll be a lively conversation, especially if we start at 5 p.m.”

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Businesses Fret as Delays Extend Construction on St. Paul Street

Posted By on Tue, Mar 19, 2019 at 5:40 PM

St. Paul Street - KATIE JICKLING
  • Katie Jickling
  • St. Paul Street
Construction will continue through the summer on a downtown stretch of St. Paul Street after a series of delays on a road improvement project, meaning the road will be closed.

Business owners, who have tolerated construction in the area for years, are worried about having no traffic on St. Paul from Main to Maple streets starting in early April and running through August.

Dick Vaughn, who opened Perky Planet Coffee two months ago on the stretch, said his business relies on foot traffic. The closure “will be devastating,” he said.

The two-block stretch has been a construction site on-and-off for years. The Stratos building was redeveloped in 2014, and Champlain College broke ground on its four-story 194 St. Paul Street student housing complex in 2016.

The latest construction is part of the city's Great Streets Initiative, a renovation of several downtown streets. The finished version of St. Paul will include widened sidewalks, more trees, bike racks, and space for awnings and outdoor seating for restaurants.

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Bernie Sanders
Sanders Campaign Says It's Led by Women

Posted By on Tue, Mar 19, 2019 at 1:32 PM

Bernie Sanders supporters at a rally in Concord, N.H., in March 2019 - FILE: PAUL HEINTZ
  • File: Paul Heintz
  • Bernie Sanders supporters at a rally in Concord, N.H., in March 2019
The bros, it seems, are no longer in charge.

Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) presidential campaign said Tuesday that women now make up 70 percent of its national leadership team. It announced 15 new and newish hires for senior positions, including 10 women and at least four people of color.

The news, first reported by the women's lifestyle site Refinery29, appears aimed at addressing criticism that Sanders' 2016 campaign was too white, too male and too Vermonty. Senior adviser Jeff Weaver — a white, male Vermonter — had been promising for months that the 2020 campaign would be far more diverse. One of Sanders' first hires was campaign manager Faiz Shakir, who has been described as the first Muslim American to hold such a position on a major presidential campaign.

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Friday, March 15, 2019

House Committee Approves New Vetting for Adjutant General Candidates

Posted By on Fri, Mar 15, 2019 at 6:28 PM

Col. Greg Knight, adjutant general, testifying this week about efforts to reform the state's singular election process - KEVIN MCCALLUM
  • Kevin McCallum
  • Col. Greg Knight, adjutant general, testifying this week about efforts to reform the state's singular election process

Future candidates for Vermont’s top military office would undergo a new vetting process and be elected at a different date under a bill approved Friday by a House committee.

The measure aims to bring some structure and greater accountability to an election process for the state’s adjutant general post, a process candidates and legislators have described as an awkward “free-for-all.” Lawmakers elected Col. Greg Knight adjutant general on February 21.

The bill, unanimously approved by the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, would create a nine-member Adjutant and Inspector General Nominating Board that would review the credentials of candidates for
the position, which oversees the state’s National Guard.

The board would then forward the names of qualified candidates to the rest of the legislature for election or reelection to the post every two years.

The committee considered whether those names should instead be forwarded to the governor for appointment, but the committee chose to retain legislative control over the election process, Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury) said.

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Bernie Sanders
Sanders Institute to Suspend Operations as Namesake Seeks Presidency

Posted By on Fri, Mar 15, 2019 at 2:19 PM

Dr. Cornel West and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the Sanders Institute Gathering in November 2018. - FILE: TAYLOR DOBBS
  • File: Taylor Dobbs
  • Dr. Cornel West and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at the Sanders Institute Gathering in November 2018.
The Burlington-based Sanders Institute is winding down its operations as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ramps up his presidential campaign.

The Associated Press first reported Thursday that the nonprofit think tank founded by the senator's wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, and her son, David Driscoll, would stop raising money immediately and close its doors by the end of May. In a press release issued later that evening, the institute said that it was making the move in order to "avoid confusion or even the misperception of any overlap" between the institute and Sanders' presidential campaign.

“We are proud of the work that the Sanders Institute has done to promote progressive solutions to the economic, environmental, racial and social justice challenges that America faces,” Driscoll said in a written statement. “That policy work has always been completely separate from electoral politics. We are taking this step in keeping with that core principle of good governance.”

As a 501c3 nonprofit, the institute is barred from certain lobbying and electoral activities. In an interview with the New York Times, O'Meara Sanders acknowledged that the situation "could become too mushy" if she remained active with the institute while campaigning for her husband.

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