A document obtained Thursday by Seven Days shows that Vermont Corrections Commissioner Mike Touchette was informed about allegations of drug use and retaliation at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility more than two years ago.
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In an incident report dated June 27, 2017, corrections officer Steffen Flibotte recounted multiple incidents of suspected retaliation against prison employees for speaking out about alleged misconduct at the women's prison. Flibotte specifically described alleged drug use by shift supervisor Daniel Zorzi and complained that Zorzi had retaliated against officers who had brought it up to prison officials.
The two-page report, titled "Retaliation at CRCF," was addressed to Touchette, who was then serving as deputy commissioner at the Department of Corrections. It was provided to Seven Days by Brittany Sweet, a former officer at Chittenden Regional who sued the state that year for sexual harassment and retaliation. Flibotte declined to comment.
Flibotte's report appears to corroborate some of the allegations made in an investigation of Chittenden Regional published Wednesday by Seven Days. That story describes complaints of sexual misconduct, drug use and retaliation at the South Burlington facility. More than a dozen officers and inmates told the newspaper that, for years, Zorzi appeared to be intoxicated during his shifts at the prison. He was suspended in October and is under investigation by the Vermont State Police.
During a press conference Thursday in Montpelier, a Seven Days reporter read a portion of Flibotte’s incident report to Gov. Phil Scott. He called it “concerning” and said that he had not heard such complaints until the investigation was published Wednesday.
“We’re taking this very seriously and I guarantee we’ll get to the bottom of it, because it’s unacceptable,” the governor said.
In his 2017 report to Touchette, Flibotte wrote that officers had noticed "a huge increase" in sanctions against them after they reported "making allegations of a second shift supervisor using cocaine and Ritalin while running shift." He later named that supervisor as Zorzi.
"Staff have reported seeing white powder around the brim of his nose and behavior consistent with the use of stimulants," Flibotte wrote.
Flibotte, a union steward for the Vermont State Employees' Association, said that he initially complained to prison officials about Zorzi's alleged drug use on behalf of his colleagues but was told that they should report it themselves. After they did so, Flibotte wrote, "they noticed that those specific officers began receiving frequent negative feedbacks by the supervisor." One officer was punished days after he told a police officer that "Zorzi's behavior was related to drug use."
In his report, Flibotte outlined several other examples of perceived retaliation against staff members. He said he believed that he had been passed over for a promotion due to his union activity, and he said that Sweet "believes that she has been retaliated against" for making allegations of sexual harassment against a supervisor and the prison superintendent.
"I believe that an investigation would [reveal] more examples due to the widespread fear of retaliation within CRCF," Flibotte wrote. "I also believe that some examples have not been spoken about due to the same fear that is creating the issue in the first place."
A June 2017 email exchange between Touchette and Flibotte, also provided by Sweet, suggests that Touchette asked Flibotte to file the incident report after Flibotte verbally complained to the prison's assistant superintendent about retaliation at the facility. "This is obviously of concern to me and I would like details as soon as possible," Touchette wrote.
It's unclear what happened after Flibotte filed the report, though officers have told Seven Days that their complaints were ignored. The next year, the DOC named Zorzi "shift supervisor of the year."
Touchette did not respond to an interview request Thursday. In an email to Seven Days, he wrote, "As per protocol, this report was forwarded to the investigation unit."
In an interview last week with the newspaper, Touchette and Chittenden Regional superintendent Theresa Stone expressed surprise that officers and inmates had complained about retaliation. Touchette said that when he held a "town meeting" with staff earlier this year, "Not once did that come up."
In the interview, Touchette declined to discuss the allegations against Zorzi. Asked whether it was possible that an officer could have used drugs at the prison so publicly for years, the commissioner said, "It wouldn't be tolerated. If we had the information, it certainly would be investigated."
Later in the interview, Touchette suggested that the allegations against Zorzi came as a surprise to him. "We can only respond to things that we're made aware of," he said.
Gov. Phil Scott at a press conference Thursday in Montpelier
At Thursday’s press conference, Scott declined to say whether he still had confidence in his corrections commissioner. “We’ll go through and gather the facts,” he said. “We’ll learn a lot over the next two to three weeks and we’ll make determinations at that point.”
The governor said he had not spoken to Touchette since the investigation was published a day earlier.
“Inevitably, I believe that there’s going to be enough evidence here that we’re going to have to move forward with something,” Scott said Thursday. “Whether it’s personnel, whether it’s procedure, there are things that I believe that we’ll have to change in the future, based on what I read.”
Asked whether the agency could conduct an impartial investigation of one of its own departments, Scott said that Smith’s probe was just a first step and that a “neutral body,” such as a blue ribbon commission, might be necessary. “But first of all, we need to figure this out and make sure that it’s not continuing to happen,” he said.
Attorney General T.J. Donovan said Thursday that he had spoken with the governor and offered his support to the investigation. Scott said the offer was “greatly appreciated” and pledged also to work with the legislature this winter if statutory changes are necessary.
When a Seven Days reporter noted during the press conference that many inmates and officers were scared that their participation in the investigation might lead to retaliation, the governor promised to prevent that. “I will personally ensure that anyone who comes forward with factual information on this, [that] there’s no retribution,” he said.
Hours later, Smith sent an agency-wide memo reiterating the point.
“First, and emphatically, let me be clear: Retaliation of any kind on sources in this article or in any other circumstance will not be tolerated,” the secretary told his staff. “That comes directly from the Governor.”