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War and... Peace? 

Inside Track

Published April 28, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Bobby Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, was beside himself Tuesday. "I'm freakin out," said the former combat infantry officer in a Seven Days interview. "It's Orwellian!" he exclaimed.

Muller, an ex-Marine, was steaming over the recent attacks by the Bush team on the military record of fellow Vietnam vet Sen. John Kerry.

What incensed Muller was the fact that GOP spin doctor Karl Rove and the Republicans had pulled this one not once, but twice before. They smeared the military record of John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary, noted Muller, and trashed the patriotism of triple-amputee Max Cleland in the 2002 Georgia senate race.

Lt. Muller's own life changed dramatically in April 1969 when, while leading a combat assault in Vietnam, an enemy bullet severed his spinal cord. He hasn't walked since.

You could sense the exasperation in his voice as he exclaimed, "John Kerry killed people in Vietnam. He had buddies killed!"

To have Kerry's military record twisted and slimed by those who "dodged the draft, went AWOL or got medals for DWI is positively Orwellian," said the distinguished Vietnam Vets leader.

This Friday, noted Muller, will mark the 29th anniversary of the end of our Vietnam War, the day Saigon fell to the communists. The day the troops finally came home.

"The primary reason we lost Vietnam," said Muller, "was because we didn't bother to understand the culture, the religion, the history of the land we invaded."

"Fast-forward to today," he said. "We have no understanding of Arab culture or the history of Islam."

Asked why there's been little in the way of mass antiwar marches demanding a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Muller thought for a moment before he replied, "Because there's no credible leadership at the moment saying we've got to get out."

Let's hope some "credible leadership" shows up sooner rather than later, eh?

Nice Work! -- Excellent public relations work recently by Vermont's largest hospital and largest law firm. When it comes to bad news, timing is everything.

In this case, the goal was to draw as little attention as possible to the behind-closed-doors Renaissance Project settlement between Fletcher Allen Health Care and its former font of legal wisdom -- Downs Rachlin Martin.

With 41 attorneys listed on its website -- http://www.drm.com -- DRM is Vermont's biggest legal stable. The "silk-stocking" firm with an uppercrust reputation represents a corporate clientele. In 2002, it billed the Mary Fanny $1.7 million for its top-notch legal counsel.

The press release announcing the unprecedented megabucks Renaissance payoff from law firm to client went out on a Friday afternoon. The story got lost in the weekend news. However, it deserves more attention.

Ah, yes, and what a Renaissance it's been!

The secretive scheme of former FAHC CEO Bill Boettcher and his merry band was to turn a $117 million hospital expansion into a $368 million Taj Mahal, paid for by the health-care consumers of Vermont! The trick was getting it past state regulators.

When the Renaissance Project is completed in the summer of 2005, the Mary Fanny will have a snazzy new front entrance, outpatient facilities and the largest underground parking garage between Boston and Montreal. But, amazingly, despite the enormous cost, not one new patient room will be built.

Two years have passed since the scandal broke. A lot has changed. Boettcher's long gone. He resigned under pressure, without admitting wrongdoing, and took a nice little golden parachute along with him. Boettcher's team has been replaced, too. And, so far, the hospital has paid a $1 million fine.

The Mary Fanny board of trustees, led by Chairman Philip Drumheller, has been replaced, too. No Vermont board of trustees in memory did a better job of knowing so little about so much.

Meanwhile, the FAHC nurses successfully organized a union and now hope to organize other hospital workers. And state and federal law enforcement agencies continue to investigate.

"Under the terms of the agreement, DRM does not acknowledge any liability," stated the Friday afternoon press release. "Both Fletcher Allen and DRM agreed that reaching an agreement was necessary to avoid incurring extensive litigation costs that would ultimately be passed on to consumers."

DRM does not acknowledge any liability?

If you'll recall, the Renaissance Scandal erupted with news that Boettcher & Co. hatched a plot to conceal the hospital's ownership of the planned $55 million underground parking garage. On advice of counsel, Boettcher approved a "synthetic lease" that would conceal the hospital's ownership, and thus exempt the giant garage from the required Certificate of Need (CON) review by the state.

According to a footnote on page 20 of the November 2002 investigation conducted by a trustee-appointed committee, Boettcher certainly valued the legal advice he was getting by DRM's senior partner, Allen Martin.

"Mr. Boettcher stated that he agreed with and followed the advice of Allen Martin, which was to provide BISHCA only with information to which they were legally entitled, i.e., not projects for which Fletcher Allen had concluded there was no CON jurisdiction."

The footnote pointed out that FAHC vice-president Dave Demers, a pre-Boettcher hire, felt that the parking garage costs should be on the table.

The report noted that "Boettcher described Demers as a dove on the issue and Martin as being a hawk, and [said] he sided with Martin."

Al "The Hawk" Martin quietly retired from Downs Rachlin Martin last year and rode off into the New Hampshire sunset.

"Our firm has always set the highest standards of quality and professionalism for work done on behalf of its clients," stated John H. Marshall, DRM's chief executive officer, in the press release.

Whatever you say, Mr. Marshall. Whatever you say.

Vermont's attorney general, however, is saying something slightly different.

"It's not every day," remarked Attorney General Bill Sorrell with a grin, "that a law firm pays its client $2 million."

Asked this week if the criminal investigation of the Mary Fanny's Renaissance is continuing, Gen. Sorrell replied, "Very much so."

P.S. There have been some changes in the corps of hired-gun Statehouse business lobbyists over the course of the current legislative session, but none less noticeable than the emergence of a new lobbying powerhouse.

Most business lobbying firms put a team of two or three lobbyists in the building. But Downs Rachlin Martin is experiencing a Renaissance in its lobbying division.

Six, count 'em, six lobbyists from DRM are prowling the Statehouse this winter. The DRM Six Pack includes Joe Choquette, John Hollar, Jennifer Hollar, Dan Smith, Sherry Larsen and Kevin Leahy.

DRM clients include: Vermont Gas Systems, Vermont Ski Areas Association, American Petroleum Institute and IBM.

Hey, law firms have to diversify if they want to survive in this economic climate. As DRM boasts on its website, "We solve complex legal problems, whether in the courtroom, the business world or the State House."

And sometimes the solution requires a $2 million payoff.


Dunsmore Update -- The report two weeks ago about the dismissal of op-ed columnist Barrie Dunsmore by The Burlington Free Press has caused a wee bit of a stir.

The retired ABC News diplomatic correspondent was abruptly dumped by order of Publisher Jim Carey, Gannett's top dog in Vermont.

The column that appears to have set off the publisher was Barrie's last. It was sardonically critical of the anti-democratic religious fundamentalism practiced both at home and abroad that sparks so much senseless bloodshed and suffering. It was Mr. Dunsmore's reference to "fundamentalists at home" that apparently lit Publisher Carey's fuse.

Editorial Page Editor David Awbrey broke the news to Dunsmore, a Charlotte resident, in a disarmingly frank email published in this space two weeks ago. Awbrey acknowledged Duns-more's brilliance, but recognized Jim Carey had the last word, and he works for Jim Carey.

Brother Jim has not responded to our request for an interview.

One Seven Days reader who called the Freeps to complain says Executive Editor Mike Townsend told him yours truly "got it all wrong." It was just the normal rotation of op-ed columnists.

But what about Awbrey's email?

Townsend told the caller Awbrey got it wrong, too.

Sure he did.

The story was picked up by a media website, and Barrie Dunsmore has a lot of friends. Some have written letters to the Freeps. None have been published to date.

Among the best is one from a gentleman by the name of Ted Koppel.

Yes, that Ted Koppel -- host of "Nightline" on ABC and a living news legend.

"Since only you can know with certainty why you canceled Barrie Dunsmore's column, it is left to the rest of us to speculate. It can't be due to his literacy or professional background. The former is eloquent, the latter beyond reproach.

"What would be doubly lamentable is the possibility that the Burlington FREE Press dropped Barrie's column because he suggested that the excesses of fundamentalism are not limited to alien orthodoxies.

"It's a sensitive issue, yes; but if a journalist as decent, as smart, as experienced and as widely traveled as Barrie Dunsmore cannot express himself on such a critical issue in your newspaper without retribution, we are all the poorer."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

In a Seven Days interview Tuesday, ABC's Peter Jennings also lamented Dunsmore's sacking in Burlington.

"It's a poor reflection on a newspaper," said Jennings. The ABC Evening News anchor said he had written personal letters of complaint "to the editor and the head of Gannett."

P.S. Word is another Vermont daily has expressed interest in running a Barrie Dunsmore column. Stay tuned.

Bad Seed? -- Environmentalists were a little surprised to learn that they were not invited to the historic signing of the landmark, first-in-the-nation law requiring the labeling of genetically engineered seed packaging. VPIRG's Ben Davis told Seven Days he called the governor's office Monday morning to learn if a signing ceremony had been scheduled. VPIRG was a major supporter of the legislation.

Davis said he was told nothing had been scheduled.

Next thing you know, he hears Gov. Jim Douglas signed the bill into law later that morning. Press Secretary Jason Gibbs said his boss signed the landmark GE seed bill around 10:30 a.m. in his Fifth Floor office. Gibbs said that, as far as he knows, Gov. Douglas was alone at the time.

Ah! A little private time for making history.

Gibbs explained Douglas would have held a public signing ceremony had the Senate also approved of two other farm-related bills near and dear to his heart.

"He wanted to sign all the measures at the same time," said Gibbs.

Sounds a bit spiteful, doesn't it? After all, the labeling law leads the nation.

Asked if he was ticked off about the secret signing, VPIRG's Davis replied, "Let's just say the administration is not bending over to reach out to the environmental community and the farming community."

Campaign 2004 -- The passage of "permit reform" will no doubt be worn like a gold medal on Gov. Douglas' chest throughout the coming campaign. Indeed, the conventional wisdom of the moment is that Gov. Scissorhands is looking pretty darn good heading into the the race against Democratic challenger Peter Clavelle.

Insiders who've been watching for a long time note that Douglas "hasn't pissed anyone off." Plus, he maintains a whirlwind travel schedule, from chamber breakfasts to chicken dinners. And his ribbon-cutting skills have become the stuff of political legend.

Let's face it. Jim Douglas is no Ruth Dwyer.

Mayor Moonie, however, is primed to shine his Burlington moonlight over the whole state. Given the fact that two of the last three governors came from Burlington, he might have a shot.

Asked if he'd agree that passage of permit-reform legislation was a "big win" for Douglas, Clavelle answered, "I don't think so."

"We need permit reform," said Mayor Moonie, "but creating more judges and more work for lawyers is not part of my vision."

Circ Shootout! -- U.S. District Court, above Burlington's main post office, will be the setting Friday morning for two hours of brilliant legal arguments that will help determine the fate of the long-planned Chittenden County Circumferential Highway.

This one's for the whole shooting match, folks. And, believe it or not, President George W. Bush is at the center of the Vermont Circ storm. It was Bush's executive order that put the Circ on the "fast track." Circ opponents suggest the Bush "fast track" is little more than a presidential ruse designed to circumvent environmental laws.

This is also a biggie for Republican Gov. Jim Douglas. Candidate Douglas proudly announced Bush's fast-tracking of the Circ just days before the 2002 election. A green light on the Circ would certainly be a feather in Gov. Jimmy Scissorhands' cap.

Sitting on the bench and wearing the long black robe Friday will be Judge William Sessions III. Not that it matters, but Judge Bill was appointed to the federal bench by President William Jefferson Clinton. Prior to that, Sessions' political resume includes a tour of duty as Sen. Patrick Leahy's 1992 campaign manager. Leahy won that race by 11 points over an up-and-coming Repub-lican named Jim Douglas.

Small world, eh?

Judge Sessions is scheduled to release his Circumferential Highway decision by May 10.

Friday's event is free and open to the public. Refreshments, however, will not be served.

Got something to say? Send a letter to the editor and we'll publish your feedback in print!

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About The Author

Peter Freyne

Peter Freyne

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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