Gov. Peter Shumlin mingled with donors, lobbyists and fellow politicos last Saturday on a sun-dappled patio at Manchester’s Equinox Resort and Spa.
Nine months into his tenure as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, he was hosting the first “chair’s retreat” in his home state for the organization’s top benefactors. Joining him for the weekend schmooze-fest were three fellow Democratic governors: Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Dannel Malloy of Connecticut and Jay Inslee of Washington.
The night before, the group had dined at Hildene, the Lincoln family’s summer home. Saturday morning, over coffee and breakfast on the Equinox’s neo-classical Rockwell Patio, they would hear from Stephanie Cutter, the Democratic strategist and cohost of CNN’s recently revived “Crossfire.”
Later, the assembled governors would join Jay Peak’s Bill Stenger, AllEarth Renewables’ David Blittersdorf and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters’ T.J. Whalen in a panel discussion.
But the main attraction — at least for the corporate and union donors who traveled to Vermont for the weekend — was the chance to arrange one-on-one meetings with the governors and their staff members between organized events Saturday.
“I’m only here for a couple meetings, so I haven’t really looked at the agenda,” said Michael Christ, a lobbyist for UnitedHealth Group, as he walked through the hotel.
Christ’s goal, he said, was to sit down with Hassan to discuss “the state of health care in general and maybe some specifics about what’s going on in New Hampshire.”
“It’s an opportunity to continue to bring forward our issues to the governors and have the opportunity to talk to them about it,” said Karundi Williams, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union, which donated $150,000 to the DGA during the first six months of the year. “We find our conversations helpful.”
Such conversations weren’t featured on the retreat’s official agenda, which mentioned just the Hildene dinner, Saturday morning’s speakers and a closing reception at the Equinox Saturday night. Asked what else Shumlin would be up to that day, DGA spokesman Danny Kanner said, “Gov. Shumlin has no scheduled meetings or events between breakfast and dinner Saturday.”
Seven Days asked several times last week to be admitted to the retreat, even though DGA events are uniformly closed to the press. To the organization’s credit, it offered to let the paper attend Saturday morning’s program — under certain conditions.
“Out of respect for our guests, however, this is provided that you not engage in interviews or conversations with participants,” Kanner said in an email last Thursday. “If that’s an arrangement that’s acceptable to you, you’re welcome to attend the panel. If that doesn’t work, I’m happy to arrange interviews with the participating governors.”
Seven Days declined the arrangement, given that it would preclude the paper from covering the most newsworthy aspects of the retreat: who was attending and what they were getting out of it.
After turning Kanner down, Seven Days approached Shumlin at a Burlington press conference last Thursday and asked to attend without conditions.
“I don’t care what you do,” Shumlin said, hastily adding that his DGA staff would have the final say. “But seriously, we’ll make it possible to give you a view of what the hell goes on.”
When I arrived at the Equinox Saturday morning — without the DGA’s permission — Shumlin was deep in conversation with a group that included chief of staff Liz Miller, former chief of staff and senior DGA adviser Bill Lofy, and Montpelier lobbyist Heidi Tringe.
Eight tables and a podium were set up around them, in front of the Rockwell building’s four-columned portico. To the west was an unobstructed view of Mount Equinox.
Lofy, for one, was not happy to see me.
“I don’t know what else there is to say,” he said, after heading me off and repeatedly questioning why I was there. “If you want to come, you can under the proposal [the DGA] made to you. If that’s not acceptable to you, then, you know, I’m sorry that you can’t be here.”
“OK, well I can’t agree to not cover something I’m seeing in front of me and not talk with people,” I responded. “That’s just not—”
“Well, exactly,” Lofy interrupted. “So therefore you shouldn’t cover it. If your conscience is piquing you such that you can’t cover something that’s in front of you, then you shouldn’t be in front of it.”
Suitably rebuffed, I strolled around the grounds until I found a comfy Adirondack chair next to the pool house, from which I could see and hear Cutter’s speech. At its conclusion, I approached Rittenhouse Consulting Group lobbyist Charlie Breslin, who was sneaking a smoke behind another building.
Breslin, whose firm has donated $5000 to the DGA this year, said he regularly attends DGA and Republican Governors Association conferences on behalf of his clients in the health care industry.
“I’m in the business of saving governors money on their budgets, so I come in with good causes. I’m not, like, a manufacturer trying to sell them computers for classrooms or something,” Breslin explained. “I advise them on different programs to save money. And, of course, I don’t do it because I’m a nice guy. I do it because it’s profitable.”
According to Breslin, the price of admission to the chairman’s retreat was “over $100,000,” though he said his clients typically pay his way.
The DGA refuses to say how much its corporate and union donors contribute in annual membership fees, but the New York Times reported in 2010 that the top three tiers of giving range from $50,000 to $250,000. The group’s most generous donors during the first half of 2013 included the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America ($300,000), Walmart ($260,000) and AstraZeneca ($250,000).
“Both the Republican and the Democratic groups essentially sell access to governors and their staffs as part of corporate ‘membership’ packages,” the Times’ David Kirkpatrick reported in the 2010 story.
After I spoke with Breslin, Equinox event planner Ruth Whitelaw approached me near the pool house and asked me to leave the hotel.
“I have a meeting going on, so I would like to take you over to your car. Come with me,” Whitelaw said as she walked me to the front door, explaining, “The event that is going on at the moment does not have guests.”
When I asked whether I could remain in the hotel’s public areas like any other Vermonter, Whitelaw relented and said I could — so long as I steered clear of the patio area.
“Maybe have some breakfast with us,” she coolly offered.
Five minutes later, as I was drinking a cup of coffee, the cops showed up.
Manchester Police Department patrol officer Paul McGann and Vermont State Police senior trooper Lauren Ronan approached me in the lounge and asked me to step into the empty Falcon Bar, where McGann informed me, “The hotel people are getting nervous because the talks are closed.”
“They don’t have a problem with you staying here, but they do have a problem if you’re trying to get into the talks or talk to the governors,” he continued.
Ronan added that they were especially worried I would try to intercept the governors as they walked between conference rooms to conduct meetings throughout the day. I assured the officers that I intended to comply with their and the Equinox’s instructions and would confine myself to the hotel’s public spaces.
We parted on an amicable note, whereupon I resumed my interviews of DGA guests as they passed through the lounge. One of them, Dutko Grayling lobbyist Mary Kay Hogan, praised the “smaller, more intimate” feel of the exclusive chairman’s retreat and called the event a great place to make contacts with governors and their staff members.
Twenty-five minutes after the cops first approached me, Whitelaw and Trooper Ronan returned to the lounge to give me the final boot.
“The hotel is asking you to leave at this time,” Ronan said as she walked me to the door. “You’re not causing any problems, but they’re a little uncomfortable with you asking guests questions and stuff like that.”
With that, my time at the chairman’s retreat was over.
So why should you care that an obnoxious reporter didn’t get his wish to fully cover a closed-press meet and greet on private property?
“I think the reason you should care is that these people are sitting around the table making decisions that will affect you, and you have no right to know who they are and what they’re after,” says Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to government transparency.
“The average member of the public is not going to jump through these hoops, but it’s often their interests that are put aside when big donors can meet with politicians like this one-on-one.”
Indeed, it is impossible to know which lobbyists Shumlin, Hassan, Malloy and Inslee met with Saturday. None of their four gubernatorial offices would disclose any information about the meetings, despite repeated requests Monday.
Only Miller, Shumlin’s chief of staff, agreed to provide details of her day. She said she attended “short briefings” conducted by the National Association of Home Builders, Oxygen Financial and UnitedHealth Group.
“These are the sorts of briefings and initiative updates that the Governor often attends,” she said in an email.
Miller said she and Deputy Commissioner of Labor Erika Wolffing were the only Vermont state employees — other than the governor — to attend the retreat, and both did so on their own time, on the DGA’s dime. Wolffing served as Shumlin’s chief fundraiser during his 2012 reelection campaign.
As for who Shumlin met with Saturday and what they asked for, Vermonters will probably never know. How much they paid for the privilege may also remain a mystery. What does seem clear is that Kanner’s initial assurance that Shumlin had no meetings planned between official events Saturday is almost definitely false.
Of course, Kanner declined to answer nearly every follow-up question posed to him Monday, responding by email only to deny that the DGA had called the cops and to accuse this reporter of “disrupt[ing] and interfer[ing] with the event.”
Was Saturday’s retreat the last time Shumlin will rub shoulders with the wealthy and powerful of the DGA?
He’s scheduled to fly to New York City this Thursday for what the Times is calling a “$5000-per-person dinner” with former president Bill Clinton.
See you there, Shummy?
Two months after hiring her and one month after laying her off, the Burlington Free Press has rehired reporter Liz Murray. She’s at least the second Freepster sacked during the great Gannett purge of 2013 — when the national newspaper chain let 13 Burlington employees go — to be hoisted back aboard.
Murray told Seven Days three weeks ago she was sailing for smoother waters at the Addison County Independent to take a reporting gig vacated by Xian Chiang-Waren, who recently left the paper for a teaching job. But sources say Murray was offered her old job back after Freeps cops-and-courts reporter Matt Ryan announced he was leaving the paper. He’s been there six years. Former Thread Magazine reporter and WCAX-TV assistant director Zach Despart will take the Addy Indy job instead.
Nobody, of course, would speak to Seven Days on the record about such zany doings.