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On Guard: How One Soldier's Letter Changed the Vermont National Guard 

Fair Game

Published February 5, 2014 at 12:47 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Only a handful of people showed up last Thursday to watch Adjutant General Steve Cray brief legislators on the Vermont National Guard’s first annual report on sexual assault and harassment within its ranks.

But one of them was a woman whose account of being sexually assaulted by a high-ranking Guard officer radically recast last year’s race to lead the 4,000-member force. Her story also prompted the legislature to pass a law mandating the report Cray was there to present.

Sitting beside her state representative in a back row of the Statehouse hearing room, the woman never spoke a word. And though she had told a committee member she might be willing to shed her anonymity to testify about her experience, the woman changed her mind and slipped out of the room before the hearing was over.

But even without the words, her story played a starring role.

After Cray and his staff presented their findings, Rep. Jean O’Sullivan (D-Burlington) briefly recounted the woman’s experience, which Seven Days first reported last January.

While training for a new job in December 2007, the woman was sexually assaulted by a senior officer, she said last year. Soon after, she informed then-brigadier general Thomas Drew, who informed then-brigadier general Jonathan Farnham. Neither officer took action or reported the incident to civilian law-enforcement authorities, she said.

After a year of bullying and harassment by the perpetrator and his friends — all reported to Farnham, she said — the woman filed a formal complaint. Though two separate investigations supported her claim, she said, the perpetrator was only verbally reprimanded and reassigned.

The allegations came to light last year as Farnham was campaigning to become the state’s next adjutant general. But after a letter the woman wrote about her experience was circulated around the Statehouse and obtained by Seven Days, Farnham withdrew from the race — and Cray was elected.

When he dropped out, Farnham said in a statement, “While the anonymous allegations are untrue, they have proved a significant distraction to both the legislature and the Guard as they continue their important work on behalf of all Vermonters.”

Like Farnham, Drew said at the time that he was unable to specifically address the allegations, but he said that all such reports are “taken seriously.”

At last Thursday’s hearing, O’Sullivan asked the new adjutant general whether such a scenario could happen again.

“I think the most important thing we have done as an organization is to increase the education and awareness to the entire organization that if this happens, where to go,” Cray said. “I would say that perhaps in that situation the member didn’t really know where to turn to and just thought that this was the right thing to do. But now I think the organization understands where to go and how the process works.”

O’Sullivan, who sponsored the legislation mandating the annual assault and harassment report, appeared pleased.

“I am so impressed and so delighted with this report,” she told Cray, adding later, “It’s a sea change, is the only way to describe this.”

The woman at the center of it all agreed. Reached by phone several days after the hearing, she applauded the legislature and military leadership for working to change the culture at the Guard. Critical to that, she said, is yearly public reporting.

“It gives structure, context and accountability,” she said. “Without that kind of context, you didn’t know if 20 [incidents] came in a year or zero came in a year. There was zero transparency there. This gives full transparency.”

“The military counts things,” O’Sullivan said after the hearing. “If you have to make a report, it then becomes real. You can’t sweep a report under the rug.”

This year’s count found that six sexual assaults were reported in fiscal year 2013, along with three instances of sexual harassment. Of the six reported assaults, two victims chose not to file a formal complaint; the other four cases were investigated by civilian law-enforcement officials, the Guard or both.

“One instance is too many,” Cray said after the hearing. But, he added, by being “willing to talk about the issue,” providing support for victims and educating all Guard members about the reporting process, his organization is moving forward.

“You can’t change a culture overnight,” he said.

O’Sullivan, who drafted her mandatory reporting legislation even before last year’s allegations came to light, says she believed the anonymous letter “helped tremendously” to turn the bill into law.

“The brouhaha that letter created focused the issue. Not only did we pass the bill, but the adjutant got enough support from the legislature to say, ‘We have to change,’” O’Sullivan said. “I think there would have been a very different outcome had the election gone differently and had we not gotten the letter.”

To the woman who sent the letter, Thursday’s hearing was a fitting resolution to her long ordeal.

“It was cathartic and it gave some closure,” she said. “I do believe that if something like that happened again, it would be handled differently.”

Lucky Dems

Can you guess which Vermonter runs one of the biggest super PACs in the country?

I’ll give you a hint: It ain’t Lenore Broughton.

According to Roll Call’s Political Money Line, the top single donor last year to an independent expenditure political action committee — aka “super PAC” — was the Democratic Governors Association. The DGA contributed $7.3 million to its own super PAC, called DGA Action, which then spent most of that cash electing Terry McAuliffe governor of Virginia.

At the helm of both organizations: DGA chairman and Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Last week, the DGA announced that it raised $28 million in 2013, “across all of its entities.” The organization didn’t elaborate on the nature of its “entities,” but filings with the Internal Revenue Service show that the group’s nonprofit advocacy arm raised nearly $26 million last year.

In the past six months, the DGA collected dozens of six-figure contributions from a potpourri of special interests — chief among them labor unions and the pharmaceutical, insurance, telecom and tech industries.

Its biggest donors? The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ($325,000), Aetna ($300,000), Pfizer ($250,000), hedge funders Paul Tudor Jones and Thomas Steyer ($250,000 apiece), and the UA Political Education Committee, which represents plumbers and pipefitters ($250,000).

While most of the DGA’s big-dollar donors hail from far beyond the Green Mountains, some of them do business in — and with — the state of Vermont.

For instance, Virginia-based CGI Technologies and Solutions, which was awarded an $84 million contract to build Vermont’s ill-fated health insurance exchange, contributed $110,000 to the DGA in 2013 — including four separate donations in December.

In January, the federal government canceled its own contract with CGI, citing the company’s bungled rollout of its online insurance portal, but the Shumlin administration opted to stick with CGI.

Corrections Corporation of America, which houses 500 Vermont prisoners in Kentucky and Arizona, donated $150,000 to the DGA in 2013. That same year, the state signed a two-year contract extension with CCA, worth up to $34 million.

Ponying up $10,000 to the DGA last year was AllEarth Renewables CEO David Blittersdorf, who has invested tens of thousands of dollars in Shumlin’s political career.

A month before his October 24 donation, Blittersdorf was invited to address four Democratic governors and a host of DGA contributors at the organization’s “chair’s retreat,” which was held at the Equinox Resort and Spa in Manchester.

Also in September, Shumlin announced that AllEarth would supply solar trackers to power state buildings. Bids for the project had been submitted to the state two years prior, and the contract was signed in October 2012.

What role, if any, did Shumlin play in soliciting DGA contributions from those who do business with Vermont? We asked his administration staffers, but they referred all our questions to DGA spokesman Danny Kanner. He ignored several requests for comment, as he has nearly every request since Seven Days covered the DGA’s Manchester retreat in October.

Just about the only scrap of information we could get out of the Shumlin administration this week was that the DGA will foot the bill for the gov’s trip to Las Vegas on Wednesday and Thursday to address the National Association of Home Builders’ annual meeting. (They donated $10,000 to the DGA last year.)

“The DGA … wanted some of the governor’s time while he is out there and so we asked the DGA to pay for his trip,” spokesman Scott Coriell said in an emailed response.

Asked whether Shumlin would be taking part in any fundraisers in Vegas, Coriell said, “I don’t have any information for you on fundraising — you could ask the DGA.”

Paging Danny Kanner!

Of course, there’s nobody to ask whether he’ll be raising any money in Sin City for his own reelection campaign. Though he told Seven Days last November he’s planning to run again and confirmed he hired a fundraising consultant last month, Shumlin has yet to identify a campaign spokesperson. And nobody on his staff will discuss his reelection bid.

“Any governor campaign fundraising would be reflected in his public filings later this year, of course,” Coriell said.

But those aren’t due ’til July.

Until then, it seems, our questions will remain unanswered.

Smoke-Filled Room?

When newly minted senator Michael Sirotkin is sworn in next week, he’s not likely to keep the choice committee assignments held by his late wife, Sally Fox, whom he’s replacing.

Instead, the Senate’s three-member “Committee on Committees” is considering putting other lawmakers where Fox once sat: on the Appropriations and Health and Welfare committees.

But if you figured the Committee on Committee’s meetings were open to the public — like, well, every other committee — you’d be wrong.

When Seven Days happened upon its three members — Lt. Gov Phil Scott, Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) and Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle) — convening to discuss the matter last Thursday in Scott’s Statehouse office, Campbell declared, “It’s not a public meeting.”

“My understanding,” he elaborated, “is it’s a private, deliberative meeting of one of the committees of the Senate and therefore, you know, not open to the public.”

“So committees can just close the doors when they’re deliberating?” Seven Days asked.

“I believe this one, yeah,” Campbell said. “My opinion is that.”

Asked for his opinion, Scott said he agreed.

“I view it sometimes as almost a personnel matter,” the LG said. “If we have it open to, like, the full Senate, then we have a lot of different opinions about who goes where.”

With that, the three men closed Scott’s door and got on with their meeting.

Shortly thereafter, they summoned Senate Secretary John Bloomer and the legislature’s chief counsel, Luke Martland, to Scott’s office to discuss the closed-door policy with the committee members. Behind closed doors.

Armed with fresh legal advice, Campbell refined his explanation later that afternoon in an interview on the Senate floor, after the body had adjourned for the day.

“The General Assembly does not come under the open meetings laws that have been established,” Campbell explained.

OK, but what about Senate Rule 96, which provides that committees may go into executive session only to discuss gubernatorial appointments, legal issues and “matters constituting a clear and imminent peril to the public safety?”

Said Bloomer, “This, in my opinion, doesn’t apply because these are standing committees. The Committee on Committees has no function to take evidence.”

Added Campbell, “The Committee on Committees is totally different. It’s kind of a misnomer using that name, ‘committee.’”

The Committee on Committees isn’t a committee, eh?

Makes you wonder what the framers of the Vermont Constitution would think about that. You know, the ones who wrote, “The doors of the House in which the General Assembly of this Commonwealth shall sit, shall be open for the admission of all persons who behave decently, except only when the welfare of the State may require them to be shut.”

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz was part of the Seven Days news team from 2012 to 2020. He served as political editor and wrote the "Fair Game" political column before becoming a staff writer.


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