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Inside Track

Bernie Sanders

Published March 17, 2004 at 5:00 p.m.

Photographer Peter Huoppi's Sunday front-page shot of Taylor Coppenrath shooting a jumper in UVM's championship victory over Maine is our nominee for Photo of the Year! If ever a picture told a thousand words, this is the one.

That's because of all the VIP faces in the center-court stands behind Coppenrath. The faces jumped off the page. Anyone familiar with Montpeculiar's finest saw a gaggle of lawmakers and state officials enjoying the biggest b-ball game in UVM history.

There were the mugs of Sens. Vince Illuzzi, Bill Doyle, John Bloomer and Jim Condos.

Also in the shot, Administration Secretary Mike Smith, U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords, Rep. Dick Marron, Rep. Howard Crawford, Human Services Secretary Charlie Smith and Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle.

We weren't surprised because, last week at the Statehouse, it was a poorly kept secret that UVM's "lobbyists" Karen Meyer and Gretchen Babcock had been dangling free tickets to the big game in front of key lawmakers, especially those who sit on committees that hand out money to the university.

Under the Golden Dome, Karen and Gretchen serve as Fogel's Angels, as in UVM President Dan Fogel. Meyer is UVM's vice president for state and federal relations. Babcock is the university's director of governmental relations.

Under state law, gifts from lobbyists to legislators valued at $5 or more must be reported. We checked the information on the Vermont Secretary of State's website and learned that not only do UVM lobbyists not report gifts to lawmakers, UVM's "lobbyists" aren't even registered!

That's odd, we thought, since Karen and Gretchen are Statehouse regulars. UVM receives about 9.6 percent of its budget -- about $36 million -- from the taxpayers of Vermont. Still, most of the undergraduates come from out of state.

As Monday's Lake Champlain Chamber legislative breakfast broke up, yours truly cornered Ms. Babcock, a copy of Sunday's Freeps in hand.

Why aren't you and Karen registered as lobbyists?

Because, replied Gretchen, UVM is an "instrumentality" of the state and exempted from lobbyist registration.

She's right. Under Title 2 Sec. 262 there is, indeed, an exemption for "a duly-elected or appointed official or employee of the United States, the state of Vermont, or of any instrumentality, agency or governmental subdivision of the foregoing."


It also means that gifts from UVM's non-registered "lobbyists," like receptions, dinners and $23 basketball tickets, are not reportable in Vermont, though they are in some states. More on that later.

Then, just as we're about to ask Ms. Babcock for a list of all the folks who got free tickets, veteran Burlington Free Press writer Candace Page slid up alongside us. We bit our tongue.

But Candy made it clear she was interested in exactly the same subject -- the VIPs who made the front-page picture on Sunday.

"Be careful what you wish for," we said to Ms. Page.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

We took the tip of our pen and pointed to the mug of her distinguished newspaper's Editorial Page Editor David Awbrey, visible at Coppenrath's right elbow.

Candy's eyes, apparently, aren't as good as they used to be.

Nonetheless, Ms. Page wrote a story that appeared Tuesday headlined "UVM gives game tickets to VIPs." And in the 20th paragraph she reported:

"Free Press Editorial Page Editor David Awbrey also accepted free tickets. Awbrey said Monday he will repay the university for them. Awbrey said he thought he had been offered the tickets because of his wife's friendship with Rachel Kahn-Fogel, the president's wife.

‘I'm so naive,' he said. ‘I didn't see it as part of the job thing.'"

So "naive?" The editorial page editor of Vermont's largest daily newspaper? Next he'll be claiming victimhood.

The fact is, ethics in journalism has been all the rage for the past decade. Take The New York Times: "Staff members may not accept gifts, tickets, discounts, reimbursements or other inducements from any individual organization covered by the Times or likely to be covered by the Times."

How about the Chicago Tribune?

"Staff members should not accept free tickets to an event for personal enjoyment, nor ‘special offers' aimed at members of the news media."

Surely Gannett Inc., the media giant that owns Burlington's out-of-town daily and 99 more like it, has ethical guidelines?

Some may recall that about a decade ago, the use of a press ID to gain admission to a UVM basketball game was one of the charges cited by Freeps management in the firing of City Hall reporter Paul Teetor.

In her Tuesday story, Ms. Page quoted her boss, Executive Editor Mike Townshend, saying the Freeps does have an ethics policy that states, "as a general rule, don't accept gifts."

In fact, on Tuesday Townshend confirmed for Seven Days what Freeps employees have told us -- that they have to sign the ethics code on an annual basis. No doubt, a few of those ranked lower than the prestigious editorial page editor wonder if they could skate like Awbrey by merely declaring their naivete and paying for the free tickets.

Asked if further action might be taken in Awbrey's case, Townshend replied, "I'm looking into it."

Happy looking, Mike.

Awbrey did not return the message we left on his voice mail. Perfectly understandable. He's in a tough spot, made tougher by the role he plays as the newspaper's opinion leader.

Surely it's coincidental, and in no way, shape or form related to his two free center-court tickets for the America East championship, but the morning of the game, the paper's lead editorial was little more than one big cheer for UVM basketball:

"Today's ESPN-televised game will raise the national profile of UVM sports. The rest of the country will be able to see a team that personifies much of what makes college sports a positive element in American culture. For that, the Catamounts are already champions," read Awbrey's editorial.

From now on, however, not only will Awbrey's editorials on UVM be questionable, but so, too, will every editorial the Freeps publishes.

What about Mr. Awbrey's recent diatribes trashing wind energy? On Monday, the Kansas transplant let loose another unbelievable one, calling wind power, "the foremost threat to Vermont's natural beauty in recent memory." He went on to insult environmentalists for "supporting the desecration of Vermont mountaintops."

What planet is this Awbrey guy from? And what freebies has he been accepting from wind-power opponents, the nuclear industry and Exxon-Mobil?

Other Guests --

UVM's Karen Meyer was only too happy to release the VIP ticket list when asked. President Danny Boy, she said, had purchased a block of 123 seats out of discretionary funds.

"We were thrilled to have so many guests come to the basketball game," said Meyer. "We are very proud of what we do and are happy, when we can, to share in such events. Our one regret is we did not have more room to invite more friends of the university."

Such an angel, eh?

According to the list, free tickets also went to Gov. Jim Douglas, former Govs. Howard Dean and Madeleine Kunin, U.S. Congress-man Bernie Sanders, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, former Lt. Gov. Doug Racine, Attorney General Bill Sorrell, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, State Auditor Elizabeth Ready (who said she insisted on paying), Treasurer Jeb Spaulding, State Sens. Jim Leddy, Sen. Phil Scott, Rep. Martha Heath, and a couple staffers at Sen. Patrick Leahy's office.

"It was nice to get tickets," said Secretary Markowitz. A regular at the women's games, Deb took her daughter to Saturday's championship.

As for Vermont's UVM-friendly lobbying law, Markowitz said other states have similar exemptions. However, she said, a few like California require "instrumentalities of the state" to report "gifts" given to people who make the laws.

Speaking of Sports --

You've got to feel bad for the folks who waited on line all night and didn't get tickets to the UVM game. Some lost out to the VIPs. But imagine if UVM had something larger than Patrick Gym?

The Gov.'s Sports Arena Committee, chaired by Commerce Secretary Kevin Dorn, held its third monthly meeting Monday and approved issuing an RFP for a feasibility study. The committee also agreed to start raising $100,000 in private funds to pay for it.

The prime site is the wooded ravine out behind the Sheraton Hotel on Williston Road.

The dream is a facility that would hold 6500 for ice hockey and 10,000 plus for concerts. Imagine if it existed today?

Not only would Editorial Page Editor Awbrey have been able to buy his own tickets, so would the thousands of fans who didn't get in Saturday.

"If it were proven to be feasible and everything got into alignment," said Sec. Dorn, "you're talking by the end of the decade it would be potentially up and running and be usable to UVM and the broader community."

Clear Distinctions --

As we mentioned last week, this year's gubernatorial race offers no shortage of clear distinctions between the candidates. Here's another one: George W. Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq. It's brought close to home again this week with the death of a Vermont Guardsman.

Republican Gov. Jim Douglas has been a constant supporter of the president's policy. Despite overwhelming evidence the Bush team lied to the American people about the reasons for war, Gov. Douglas continues to stand by his man.

"I do support the administration's actions and decisions with respect to the operation in Iraq," Gov. Douglas said the other day. "Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who murdered massive numbers of his own people. He was in violation of United Nations' resolutions. There's a broad coalition of nations that support our efforts there. I believe the world is better off for his removal from power."

Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle, the Democratic challenger, couldn't disagree more.

"Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator," Clavelle told Seven Days, "but he was not an imminent threat to the safety and well-being of the United States. This was an unnecessary war, one that could have been avoided."

Mayor Moonie said Gov. Jimbo "does not recognize the harm this president is inflicting on Vermont-ers. In fact, he's cheerleader-in-chief for George W. Bush."

Gov. Douglas is Vermont chairman of Bush-Cheney 2004.

Love those clear distinctions, don't you?

A Song for Ireland --

This edition of Seven Days hits the street, as it does every seven years, on St. Patrick's Day. As regular readers are aware, "Freyne" is actually an Irish name and this particular Freyne's roots are buried deep in Irish politics.

April 11 will mark the 83rd anniversary of the death of the first Peter Freyne. An 18-year-old farm boy from County Kilkenny, Peter left the farm to serve under legendary IRA leader Michael Collins. Unfortunately, Uncle Pete never met his nephew. He was gunned down in a raid on the Dublin headquarters of the notorious Black and Tans, the "irregular" military force the Brits sent to crush the Irish rebellion.

The story of the raid made Page 2 of The New York Times the following morning. Peter's older brother, Frank, was the squad leader and would shortly be captured when Collins' Dublin Brigade torched the Dublin Customs House in May.

Yours truly wasn't even a gleam in Frank's eye at the time. My daddy-to-be was shipped to Kil-mainham Gaol with a death sentence on his head. But political negotiations between the IRA and Winston Churchill produced a December peace treaty that established the Irish Free State. Without that treaty -- no "Inside Track," folks.

Unfortunately, it only liberated 26 of the Emerald Isle's 32 counties. Thus, the struggle continues today. And at this very moment the peace process that moved forward with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has taken a few giant steps backward.

Everything's bogged down on the issue of "decommissioning" paramilitary weapons. Last October, Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, head of the Commission on Decommissioning, reported on the third such event in which the IRA put a portion of its weapons "beyond use."

Under the confidentiality rules of the agreement, however, Chastelain cannot reveal precisely how many weapons were put beyond use, specifically what kind they were, nor where the decommissioning occurred. The retired general can only say the event he witnessed took place "somewhere on the island of Ireland."

Last fall, that was no longer good enough for the hardline Unionists led by Rev. Ian Paisley. Everything's on hold. The peace process is in crisis.

So what a remarkable coincidence it was when we bumped into Gen. de Chastelain last month in Williston. No, not at Wal-Mart. Rather nearby at the headquarters of a new Vermont Biotech company.

With the help of Sen. Patrick Leahy, Triosyn Corp. has secured $13.2 million in federal contracts. That eased the move south from Montreal. Using a patented process, the company produces an iodine-based resin that can be applied to everything from tent material to clothing, air filters and paint, and protects against a range of infectious microorganisms from anthrax to influenza.

Sounds like the demand for Triosyn resin can only skyrocket, eh?

Gen. Chastelain is on the board of directors and he attended the press conference at which the latest Leahy-assisted federal contract was announced. Knowing he would be there made our attendance mandatory.

If the peace process in the North is revived, Chastelain told us that he will be the first to know.

"I'd go back tomorrow," he told us, "if they gave me a call."

To keep in touch with the situation, Chastelain said he checks www.nuzhound.com every morning. The site provides links to all Irish and British news articles related to the Northern Ireland stalemate.

It's now one of our bookmarks, too.

Thanks, General. We hope your phone rings real soon.

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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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