Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger knew more than he publicly let on about the Twitter trolling scandal that led his former police chief, Brandon del Pozo, to resign last December.
In a November 30 deposition in a civil case that was made public in a court filing on Monday, del Pozo asserted that he showed the mayor the @WinkleWatchers Twitter account that he created to troll a critic, before he’d tweeted from it. Weinberger acknowledged as much during an interview Tuesday, a departure from previous statements that implied he had learned of the account only after del Pozo used it and admitted he had.
Del Pozo’s undoing began on July 4, 2019, when he anonymously directed several tweets from @WinkleWatchers at one of his biggest critics, Charles Winkleman, and then deleted the account. Under oath, del Pozo told attorneys that he had shown Weinberger the account the previous day, before he’d sent any tweets from it.
“It was after July fireworks,” del Pozo told Evan Chadwick of the law firm Chadwick & Spensley in a transcript that contained some typos and missing words. “[Weinberger] said, How’s it going? I said yeah, you know, it’s so frustrating to have the city’s best efforts like on the park and everything you attack. Like, wouldn’t it be interesting if somebody who constantly trolls people and is, like, bitter in his criticisms, like, was called out on it. And he laughed. He say, Yeah, you know. He didn’t say do it. He didn’t — the whole thing was like maybe 30 seconds.”
Del Pozo continued, “I think he saw it as just me like venting and just trying to, like, you know, vent some stress.”
In an interview Tuesday, Weinberger corroborated much of what del Pozo recounted. The mayor described it as a “bizarre, brief” encounter during a city party at the ECHO Leahy Center for Lake Champlain.
“As I think his deposition kind of suggests, he showed the account to me as if it were funny. I didn’t find it funny; I don’t think I laughed,” Weinberger said. “I found the interaction somewhat disconcerting, but at the time, the chief was a trusted member of my team. And it was unfathomable to me then that he would actually use the account, so I moved on with celebrations and would have never thought about the incident again, but for later events.”
“I definitely left that conversation reassured that he would not use that account, that he had no intention of tweeting,” Weinberger said.
He said he had urged del Pozo on other occasions not to let antagonistic tweets get to him and told him “numerous times” not to answer critics, adding that his chief “knew that I did not approve of responding, or engaging, those kinds of posts in any way.”
Winkleman provided screenshots of the @WinkleWatchers tweets in question to Seven Days and indicated that he thought del Pozo was behind them. When asked about them in an interview later in July 2019, del Pozo repeatedly denied he was behind the account or had sent the tweets. The truth never came out publicly until December 12, 2019, when Seven Daysasked Weinberger directly about it.
Weinberger told Seven Days then that del Pozo had come to his house the previous July 28 and told him “that he had created the account, made the tweets and that he had not been forthcoming” when he spoke to Seven Days about it.
“I focused on this issue first thing the next morning when I came in and took a number of immediate steps,” Weinberger said. “I placed him on leave; I took away his gun, badge, his cell phone; we shut down his social media account; and I directed the city attorney and HR director to launch an investigation of what had happened and very quickly the investigation turned up a number of things.”
Asked Tuesday why he hadn’t made clear then that he knew about the account, Weinberger said he “was very focused on describing accurately what I understood to be the really problematic incident in question: the tweets, and then the actions that I took in response to the tweets.
“It simply didn't occur to me, then or in the subsequent interviews, to go back and talk about this bizarre, brief, prior interaction,” Weinberger continued. “In retrospect … I wish I had made that part of my attempt to share the full record of what happened. It wasn’t the focus of what I was trying to communicate.”
After the city’s investigation last July, del Pozo took a six-week medical leave of absence, with no explanation why or any revelation of the Twitter account. Weinberger said last December that del Pozo’s actions had been related to “an underlying mental health condition.”
During his deposition, del Pozo told the attorneys that he “was encouraged to take medical leave to be sure that the stresses that produced the behavior were addressed.” He also denied that he was disciplined.
“My badge was never taken and my gun was never taken, and I cannot emphasize enough that that is an inaccurate reportage,” del Pozo said in the partial deposition filed Monday.
Asked if the mayor had inaccurately reported those details, del Pozo replied, “I haven’t spoken with the mayor in a long time. You’ll have to ask him.
“I never, ever, ever relinquished my shield or my gun,” del Pozo continued. “I state that on the record under oath.”
During Tuesday’s interview, Weinberger said there had been conflicting reports from del Pozo himself about what he had done with his badge and gun. The chief ultimately told city officials he’d left them on his desk.
If he hadn’t, Weinberger said, “then that was in direct contradiction of what had been asked of him. It is essentially insubordination if that’s the case.” He added, “That is how I understand events, and I don't know how to square that with what the chief is now asserting. I can’t explain the contradiction.”
Del Pozo’s version of events has also been inconsistent. When coming clean about his trolling last December, the former chief explained that he’d made the @WinkleWatchers account on July 4. But his statements under oath make clear the account existed the day before.
Publicly, del Pozo repeatedly downplayed the incident as a brief lapse in judgement.
"It's 45 minutes of my life spent anonymously tweeting [at] someone in a snarky way that does not befit the chief of police," he told reporters on December 13, 2019, "and then, to be candid, denying it out of embarrassment to a reporter, which I think is the more serious problem."
After the trolling scandal erupted, del Pozo initially vowed to stay on the job. But he ultimately resigned on December 16, 2019, just four days after admitting he had made the account and lied about it.
“That's why his gun and badge, etcetera, were taken because we placed [him] immediately on administrative leave while we looked into it, to understand the extent of what had occurred,” City Attorney Eileen Blackwood said at the press conference on the day del Pozo quit.
While working on follow-up stories in January, Seven Days asked Weinberger when, exactly, he’d heard about del Pozo's tweets.
“I had no idea what was going on with this until he came and saw me at my house, as I've said to you and many other reporters,” Weinberger said during a January 22 interview. “That was when I first learned of it.”
He still retains a seat on the board of directors for the Howard Center, which provides mental health and substance abuse services. Nearly 2,300 people have signed petitions calling for del Pozo’s removal, including one that specifically mentions his trolling of Winkleman, a former Howard Center employee. The agency launched an internal investigation into del Pozo’s social media conduct in August.
Weinberger admitted on Tuesday that he regretted certain aspects of his investigation, including his failure to ask del Pozo more about the conversation during which the chief lied to a Seven Days reporter.
“If I had to do it over, there are things I would have handled differently,” Weinberger said. “And I don't say that about many things from the last nine years,” he said, referring to his time in office.
The sides attended two mediation sessions, one in July and one in October, but couldn't reach a settlement.
The plaintiffs hope to compel Weinberger to testify. Chadwick, the Melis' attorney, had originally asked to depose the mayor for an hour, saying in court filings that he planned to query Weinberger about the mayor’s role in offering a $300,000 buyout to Bellavance, who accepted it and left the force. But after hearing del Pozo’s testimony on November 30, Chadwick asked the court for three hours of Weinberger’s time.
The attorney wrote that del Pozo’s deposition “has raised significant issues as to Defendants’ ability to tell the truth.”
Chadwick’s filing Monday was in response to a city effort to prevent Weinberger from being deposed. On December 1, the city’s attorneys asked the judge to intervene, arguing that the Melis had not identified the “exceptional circumstances” that federal courts have said are necessary to warrant deposing a high-level government official. They also argued that Weinberger’s discussions surrounding the Bellavance payout were privileged communications.
The Melis’ attorney argued in this week’s filing that his clients have the right to ask Weinberger what he did “in response to the knowledge that his chief of police was setting up a fake social media account to troll critics of his administration.”
The federal judge in the case, William Sessions III, was unpersuaded by an earlier attempt by Chadwick to tie the social media scandal to his clients’ excessive force claims. After del Pozo resigned last December, the Melis’ attorney asked Sessions to sanction the city because del Pozo had not disclosed the @WinkleWatchers handle in response to a discovery request about his social media accounts. Sessions ruled that the omission had not harmed the case and chided the lawyer for not working with the city to resolve the dispute.
The city’s outside counsel, Pietro Lynn of the firm Lynn, Lynn, Blackman & Manitsky, said in court filings at the time that the plaintiffs were grasping at the scandal “as a ploy for more media coverage in this case.”
The court has not yet decided whether the mayor will be deposed. Weinberger said Tuesday that he worried sitting for a deposition would set a bad precedent in a city that is sued often.
“I haven’t seen a compelling link between the chief’s social media and the incident in question,” he said. “So I think we will continue to resist that I should be deposed.”
Derek Brouwer contributed reporting.
The original print version of this article was headlined "All Atwitter Again"