Convict-Turned-Lawmaker Pushes Criminal Justice Reform in Vermont | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Convict-Turned-Lawmaker Pushes Criminal Justice Reform in Vermont


Published April 19, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 20, 2018 at 10:11 p.m.

Janssen Willhoit - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Janssen Willhoit

Rep. Janssen Willhoit (R-St. Johnsbury) stood in the chamber of the Vermont House for 90 minutes last month defending a bill that would allow some ex-convicts to have their records wiped clean more quickly. The debate turned intense as other Republican lawmakers challenged the notion that criminals deserve a fresh start.

Willhoit understands better than most the benefits of a second chance.

"I'm no different than these other individuals" seeking expungement, the swift-talking 38-year-old told his colleagues. He didn't explain — but lawmakers knew what he meant.

Eight years ago, Willhoit was released from a Kentucky prison, where he had served five years for bilking investors out of more than $100,000. With a felony on his record, the best job he could find was prepping poultry at a Chick-fil-A.

Since then, Willhoit has made a remarkable turnaround — in part because he won a pardon from the Kentucky governor. Today, the former felon is practicing law as a defense attorney in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom and shaping the law as a state representative. He has applied to be the state's next U.S. attorney.

Willhoit scored a seat on the House Judiciary Committee in January as he started his second term in the legislature. He's seized that opportunity to pursue progressive criminal justice reforms — at the cost of irking his more conservative Republican colleagues.

"I do feel my life's calling is this work," Willhoit said, referring to his role as a defense attorney and criminal justice reformer. "Even those that have committed the most heinous crimes still are human beings. We have a duty and obligation to protect their rights."

The Republican state rep has boyish features and speaks in a torrent of words with a slight drawl that betrays his Southern roots.

Willhoit grew up on a small tobacco farm in rural Kentucky, raised by a poor, politically active mother. She was a Democrat, but Willhoit was drawn to the GOP's focus on fiscal restraint. He spent the summer of 1998 interning for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Two years later, he graduated from Eastern Kentucky University, the first in his family to earn a college degree.

After working for a year at a brokerage firm in Lexington, Ky., he started his own investment firm at age 22.

Struggling to find clients, the young broker began guaranteeing returns that he soon couldn't deliver. Willhoit started using new clients' investments to pay back old clients, operating what was essentially a Ponzi scheme. He did so, he said, in the hopes that the financial market would improve and he could make the money back.

One of his clients, Jamie Leigh, grew suspicious in 2004 and notified the police. Her complaint led to an investigation and Willhoit's arrest later that year.

Willhoit estimates he lost about $130,000 of his clients' money. Leigh, who said she was defrauded of $40,000, told Seven Days that Willhoit deliberately misled his clients and was spending their money, not investing it.

He denies this allegation but does acknowledge that what he did was wrong. The way he describes it, he was an arrogant 22-year-old who "made promises I couldn't keep."

The court came to a less sympathetic conclusion, sentencing him to 10 years in prison for "theft by deception." In prison, Willhoit alleges, two guards raped him, and others repeatedly sent him to "the infirmary" — solitary confinement — for fabricated offenses. At one point, he said, prison officials tried to get a psychologist to deem him mentally incompetent after he clashed with them.

"It was bad, really bad," he said, summing up his prison years.

Willhoit was released in 2009, his 10-year sentence reduced to five for work and education credits he had earned.

By his account, he entered prison "a very self-centered individual" and departed intent on helping others. "I don't think my own incarceration was a bad thing," he's now concluded.

His wife, Sarah, went further in her assessment. She met Willhoit in college, got back in touch with him after he was arrested and married him while he was incarcerated. "[Prison] was a horrible experience, but I think it was one of the best things that ever happened," she said. "I think it truly changed his outlook on his life."

After his release, Willhoit began volunteering on behalf of Kentucky inmates — working with ex-offenders with a Christian organization called Lexington Rescue Mission and helping start a group called Bluegrass Families of the Incarcerated to support prisoners' relatives. He made multiple trips to the Kentucky State Capitol to testify about his experience and lobby for prisoners' rights.

Then-governor Steve Beshear appointed Willhoit to a state task force studying ways to reintegrate released offenders into the community. In September 2009, just months after Willhoit's own release, the governor pardoned him.

That cleared the way for Willhoit to start a new life. In early 2010 he was accepted at Vermont Law School. After completing clerkships with the defender general and in the Vermont Prisoners' Rights Office, he graduated in 2012 and was admitted to the Vermont bar.

The newly minted lawyer moved to St. Johnsbury, where he now works as a defense attorney. He handles cases through a contract with the defender general, most often custody hearings for abused or neglected children.

That work led Willhoit and his wife to become foster parents. They adopted their first two children, now ages 7 and 14, and are taking care of three others — one of whom they also plan to adopt.

"The two of them go above the call of duty," said Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia). "They really have a dedication to those kids."

Rep. Chip Troiano (D-Stannard), a now-retired defense investigator who, for a time, worked in the same office as Willhoit, agreed: "His heart is in the right place." But, Troiano added, "Where we differed is that he seemed to see everything as a competition," even treating coworkers as rivals.

Willhoit is unquestionably ambitious.

In 2014, he decided to run for state representative, despite his problematic past and the fact that he'd moved to town just two years earlier. When local Republicans met to vet him, Willhoit said, "They weren't concerned about my past but [they were concerned] that I might be a little too religious."

Durward Ellis, a Republican and longtime resident of St. Johnsbury, met Willhoit at the Methodist church they both attend. "I asked him some very pointed questions about his background, which is quite unique, and he answered very straightforward."

That was good enough for Ellis, who went door-to-door with Willhoit during the campaign. "He's a good family man," Ellis added.

Benning, another early supporter, said Willhoit "went out of his way to explain what happened." Then again, he didn't have much choice. The Caledonian Record ran several stories about his transgressions.

One sticking point for some critics: Willhoit has never paid back his former clients. Legally, he didn't have to pay restitution because he completed his prison sentence. He claims his former clients pushed to keep him behind bars, knowing the tradeoff. Practically, he said, he lives paycheck to paycheck and isn't in a position to return the money.

Still, why not try? "I think it's a fair question ... I'm not a person of means. I've done the best I can to give back to my community," Willhoit said.

He campaigned relentlessly, knocking on doors starting in April 2014 — a full seven months before his first election. Enough voters were willing to look beyond his past, and that November he finished second in a four-way race, barely edging out Democratic incumbents Michelle Fay and Bob South.

Last December, Willhoit was thrust into a high-profile political fracas over then-governor Peter Shumlin's plan to select a new Vermont Supreme Court justice. Republicans sued to stop the Democrat's appointment, since the retiring justice did not plan to step down until after Republican governor-elect Phil Scott was sworn in. House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) turned to Willhoit — the only practicing lawyer in his caucus — to argue before the Supreme Court.

With assistance from Deborah Bucknam — a Vermont Republican Party leader and its 2016 candidate for attorney general — Willhoit prevailed. "I think the Supreme Court case was a major feather in his cap," said Benning, who was one of the plaintiffs. "It gave him a lot of exposure and a lot of credibility."

When the legislature reconvened in January, Willhoit was named to the spot he coveted on the judiciary committee.

"I think some of his personal experiences really have enabled him to have an open mind," said Rep. Maxine Grad (D-Moretown), the committee's chair. "He's taken the lead on a number of bills relating to reforms in criminal justice."

Willhoit spearheaded legislation to make more people eligible for deferred sentences, and he played a lead role defending the bill to clear criminal records. Both passed in the House, as did a bill he sponsored to give foster parents a limited role in child custody hearings.

"I would consider him a strong ally," said Rep. Selene Colburn (P-Burlington), a liberal who serves with Willhoit on the judiciary committee. Next year, the Progressive and the Republican are hoping to convince their colleagues to reduce penalties for drug users who aren't dealers.

Members of Willhoit's own party are less pleased with his work.

Turner said he lobbied House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) to get Willhoit his committee seat, thinking it would help the party to have a Republican lawyer in that position. "I really asked — pleaded — that we get Janssen on Judiciary."

So what has Willhoit achieved for the party?

"Ummm, sometimes I wonder," said Turner, half-joking. The Republican leader said he respects Willhoit — and the fact that "he's in the trenches every day doing that kind of work."

But, Turner said, "It's troubling for me sometimes because we have some really conservative people, and they believe ... you break the law, you pay the price. And what seems to be coming out of that committee is, you break the law, we'll make it easier for you to clear your record." That tension was evident on the House floor last month when law-and-order Republicans began raising objections to the criminal record bill Willhoit was defending.

Jamie Leigh, Willhoit's Kentucky victim, is incredulous that Vermonters have put him in a position where he can influence legislation.

"I think he is the proverbial 'wolf in sheep's clothing,'" she wrote in an email. She signed off: "Good luck with your article, and may God have mercy on the voters of Vermont."

For now, constituents and colleagues seem to have embraced Willhoit.

Last week, he was talking with a reporter in an empty House chamber when Assistant Majority Leader Tristan Toleno (D-Brattleboro) wandered in. Toleno recalled the debate over clearing criminal records, which took place when Willhoit's 14-year-old daughter was visiting the Statehouse.

"You took great personal risk in front of your daughter and stood up in front of a caucus that was frankly unkind on the floor, and you spoke your truth," Toleno said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Convict-Turned-Lawmaker Pushes Criminal Justice Reform in Vermont"

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