Addison County's sheriff is challenging the findings of a state probe into allegations that he made against a rival police chief, saying Attorney General T.J. Donovan's decision to dismiss the matter amounts to corruption.
In a brief video posted to his personal Facebook account on Tuesday, Sheriff Peter Newton criticized Donovan for clearing Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel of any wrongdoing related to allegations that Merkel had falsified time sheets so that he could make more money.
The sheriff accused Merkel of the misconduct in a report to the Vermont State Police earlier this year. But Donovan said last week that the VSP investigation revealed discrepancies of only 15 hours over a two-year period, with no evidence to suggest anything more than "clerical mistakes."
"The decision by the attorney general to call the timesheet discrepancies unintentional, and his repeated insistence that my claims are baseless and false — I believe this is corruption," Newton said in the video, occasionally waving a stack of paper. "I encourage anyone who believes this to be solely clerical in nature to sit with me and my detective to review the evidence."
Newton's claims against Merkel — first reported by the Daily Beast earlier this month — were detailed in a 16-page report that contained two main allegations.
First, Newton accused Merkel of double-dipping by intentionally billing hours to a state-funded highway program while simultaneously clocking in on the city's dime. The sheriff also claimed to have evidence showing that Merkel failed to report state-mandated traffic-stop data for more than 70 stops he has made over the last two years.
Donovan' s office did not mention the traffic data claim in its statement about Merkel's time sheets last Friday but said that it was not currently investigating Merkel on any other matters.
His office later told Seven Days that alleged violations of the Vermont's Fair and Impartial Policing policy fell under the purview of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council. A council representative said Tuesday that the body could not confirm nor deny whether it was investigating the matter.
"We receive reports and respond accordingly," wrote Cindy Taylor-Patch, director of training at the Vermont Police Academy, in an email. Asked whether the council believed that the traffic data reported by Vergennes represents a full picture of the city's traffic stops, Taylor-Patch replied, "We cannot comment."
Donovan's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday about Newton's corruption allegation.
Merkel, meantime, broke his silence about the allegations in a Facebook post on the department's page Friday that said the AG's report exonerated him of Newton's "baseless, false, and scathing accusations."
"The people of the City of Vergennes and its police department did not deserve this, nor did I or my family," Merkel wrote. "Hopefully, it was clear to anyone who read the various news articles which that [sic] these accusations were very personal in nature towards me. These attacks have caused me and my family an immense amount of pain, embarrassment, and humiliation."
Merkel went on to accuse Newton of retaliating against him for Vergennes beating out the sheriff's department on contract bids. Newton denies the claim.
"As well as clearing my name and my department’s name and reputation from these malicious and unprecedented attacks, I will pursue measures to prevent further abuses of power by my accusers," Merkel wrote. "If a Chief of Police can be victimized as severely as this from this gross misuse of power, imagine what a private citizen would experience if they presented an obstacle to an interest of these same people."
The interagency imbroglio marks the latest twist in a police-related saga that has consumed Vergennes throughout the summer. In July, the city's governing body lost its quorum after four councilors, including the mayor, resigned. They did so to protest the handling of a now infamous meeting at which the city manager revealed a chain of text messages prompted by disagreements over whether Merkel's department needs more civilian oversight.
A citizen group tasked with answering that question said earlier this month that the city would indeed benefit from a civilian advisory board. The group asked for more time to draft its final proposal. But before it can begin that work, it must wait for the city council to regain its quorum. The city has planned a special election for September 22.
Newton said he planned to continue his crusade regardless of the AG's findings. "I was elected sheriff of Addison County; my job is to end corruption, and I will continue to do that," he said. "We will be forwarding this information to this new city council, once elected, for them to make their own decision."
Newton also said he believed it was time for his department to "move our attention to our plans to better Addison County law enforcement."
"Stay tuned for further videos about our upcoming plans," he said. "It's going to be great, folks."