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The Politics of Tragedy

Fair Game


Published July 30, 2008 at 8:50 p.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Listening to the calls for more investigations, a special session and harsher penalties for sex offenders, one can only feel less enthralled than ever with Vermont's elected leaders.

In the wake of Brooke Bennett's murder we've heard only shallow, calculated platitudes that fall short in the solution category. The proposed "fixes" represent knee-jerk political reactions, rather than any substantive means to address root social problems.

It's so predictable, and so sad.

Meanwhile, those who profit from such tragedies - FOX News' Bill O'Reilly and True North Radio host Paul Beaudry, who aspires to be O'Reilly - perpetuate the stereotype that liberals (Democrats/ Progressives) are crime coddlers, and that conservatives (Republicans) are the true defenders of children.

When Gov. Jim Douglas met with House Speaker Gaye Symington and President Pro Tem Peter Shumlim, the governor had to know they wouldn't support a special session to consider ideas the Vermont legislature rejected two years ago. After rejecting his "offer," Douglas implied that Symington and Shumlin weren't interested in protecting Vermont's kids. That's leadership?

Douglas then lamented the "great deal of talk, finger-pointing and grandstanding" that followed the discovery of Bennett's body in a shallow grave in Randolph County. He should know. Douglas, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, Symington and Shumlin are in a league of their own when it comes to grandstanding.

Beaudry and his fellow travelers also invoked Symington and Shumlin's reluctance to sign on immediately to chemical castration and 25-year minimum sentences for child molesters when they rallied the faithful last Saturday in St. Albans. But, given that only 30 people showed up, methinks they may be lacking in the faith part.

Like many Vermonters, I'm of two minds on this issue. On the one hand, the "castrate now, ask questions later" argument satisfies a side of me that yearns for justice (even though I understand that's not really justice). Then there's the "fix the system" side of me that would like the laws and policies on the books used to put these bastards away for a very, very long time, if not for good.

Do I believe child molesters should get tougher punishment? Yes. Perhaps we should allow for greater minimum sentences and even give prosecutors greater latitude to seek life for first- or second-time offenders in certain cases.

Do we need a special session to accomplish this? No. There's already been too much political theater and posturing from all sides, and such a session wouldn't amount to much.

Will tougher sentences keep kids like Brooke from being molested by relatives and treated like property? No. I believe there is no cure for child sex-offenders. There are addicts who can get by without victimizing anyone, but that can't be said of pedophiles.

But, if we jail more of these fiends and for longer periods of time, are we willing to release folks serving time for lesser crimes a bit sooner? Or, more to the point, are we willing to pay more to keep more people locked up?

As for sex offenders who have been let out on parole, how about hiring more probation and parole officers, since many have caseloads topping 250. Or, cap their caseloads and bring on more of the specially trained officers who oversee sex offenders.

A convicted predator like Michael Jacques, if found responsible for the abduction of Bennett (he hasn't been charged, so far, with her death), should spend the rest of his life in jail. Same goes for Bennett's ex-stepfather who allegedly tried to cover up the crime, destroy evidence, and purge his own computer of kiddie porn. Society needs to be protected from certain people, and these guys are those people.

But, we also need to ask tougher questions of ourselves. It's easy to blame "the system." But what is the responsibility of the community and the family in these kinds of cases? Did no one in the community suspect Jacques of resorting to old habits? Did no one in the family?

Those are the hard questions. No politician wants to ask them, let alone propose answers. Instead, they finger-point and claim moral high ground.

Child victims of sex crimes often suffer alone. And, while we need to empower our kids to speak up for themselves and their friends when they suspect something is wrong, as adults we need to become better listeners. Especially when all we think we hear is silence.


Chain Reaction - When it comes to Vermont Yankee, it can make one's brain hurt keeping the stories straight from week to week.

Last week, we learned that radiation levels around the plant are higher now that VY is pumping out 20 percent more power. But, according to the Vermont Department of Health, "higher direct gamma radiation" measured at the site is still below the state's limit. Of course, those limits were adjusted downward this year by 60 percent due to changes in how the state calculates radiation dosages. As it turns out, under the old standards, VY would have exceeded state standards by about 50 percent (more in some areas).

Yesterday's apples are today's oranges.

Speaking of yesterday's apples, last week "Fair Game" reported that Douglas officials lied when they said they'd asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to let a member of a special legislative oversight panel take part in a safety review of Vermont Yankee. It even appeared that the NRC told Douglas and his Department of Public Service in April that it was OK with such a setup; the state just needed to ask.

Since then, "Fair Game" has learned the NRC was lying - to the state. It never intended to let any panel member take part in the review, because the agency feared it would interfere with regulators' work and muddle federal and state jurisdiction.

So, did DPS know all along that the NRC was not going to let anyone join the review? That appears to be the case, based on 160 pages of emails provided to "Fair Game" by DPS.

In one email, dated July 16, DPS Deputy Commissioner Richard Smith told the panel's chairman Arnie Gundersen that his reading of state law was that the panel did not have the right to access the NRC review. The state's role is to review "reliability," the NRC's role is to review "safety," Smith said. "Although I understand your desire to participate as an observer of the inspection," he wrote, "I have to respectfully say it is not something we can facilitate."

Gundersen, along with panel member Peter Bradford, believed the law did give the panel such authority and that it could respect the distinct roles granted to the state and NRC. They asked the DPS to make it happen.

During the panel's July 18 closed-door meeting, state nuclear engineer Uldis Vanags said he had asked the NRC for its OK, and would ask again - even though the state opposed the request. But, he never did. When word got out, Symington and Shumlin charged Douglas and his team of lying to the panel and limiting its work. They also insisted that DPS officials ask the NRC to allow the panel for access.

Why wait? "Fair Game" asked NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan if the feds would allow Gundersen access to the review team. "We would not support participation by oversight panel members in our inspections," Sheehan said. "Again, the state is focusing on reliability while we are concentrating on nuclear safety."

Here's my take: When the NRC said it was OK with outside consultants in April, it didn't envision a panel of critics who might ask tough questions.

Given Gundersen's past criticism of VY management and the NRC's oversight role, it's no wonder neither the NRC nor DPS wants him anywhere near VY. And DPS spokesman Stephen Wark, in the weeks leading up to the panel's first meeting, did his part to undermine Gundersen and Bradford - both Democratic appointees - claiming they harbored biases against VY.

That said, "Fair Game" owes Wark an apology. Based on an inadvertent email Wark sent to "Fair Game," it appeared he wanted a copy of a highly critical letter Gundersen had written to Smith for his media talking points. We found it ironic that Wark would use the letter to talk to the media after he had publicly tarred Gundersen. Turns out he wasn't. Wark told us he was referring to Smith's letter (quoted above). Fair enough.

But, now victims of NRC doublespeak and its own political gamesmanship, the DPS may understand why the legislature created the special panel - a lack of trust in the powers that be.

Speaking of trust, guess who told The Burlington Free Press' editorial board that VY's ongoing problems made it appear as if "Homer Simpson is running the place." Was it: a) Arnie Gundersen; b) Gaye Symington; or c) Jim Douglas.

The answer is c.

Nuclear power plant mishaps make for strange bedfellows.


Pass the Shovel - Gov. Douglas' brother-in-law and compost company owner Robert Foster isn't happy with the way state regulators are treating one colleague.

In a recent letter to the Times Argus, the Composting Association of Vermont, which Foster chairs, urged his brother-in-law's administration to rescind an order that could force the Vermont Compost Company to close down. The CAV said the Natural Resources Board order was "out of step" with talks designed to better regulate Vermont compost operations, and a state law on the books giving composters a reprieve from Act 250 enforcement through 2010.

"It seems - and with no intent to be inflammatory - that the NRB is trying to circumvent its own appeal process. If so, why?" the letter asks.

Why, indeed. Maybe some people's shit just doesn't stink.


Winooski Woes - Speaking of stink, it appears as if the cloud hanging over the city of Winooski may be dissipating.

Last month, city officials cut short hearings into alleged misconduct by Police Chief Steve McQueen and reinstated the chief to his post. Then, last week the city council denied a call by 250 residents to fire City Manager Joshua Handverger, who had leveled the charges against McQueen. The vote was taken in secret, which is illegal, so the council plans a public vote Monday night.

Mayor Michael O'Brien and city councilor Michael Mahoney voted to end Handverger's contract early, while councilors Erik Heikel and Jodi Harrington, and Deputy Mayor Kathy Picard voted to keep Handverger on the job. His one-year, $74,000 contract expires September 30.

O'Brien, who usually votes only to break a tie, said he hopes to put these issues to rest and move on after Monday. He will, however, vote publicly on Monday to terminate Handverger's contract. Councilors don't expect to change their minds, either. The five members and Handverger will hold an August 23 retreat to set new goals and objectives for the manager and brainstorm solutions to the city's problems.

As for Handverger, he sent out notes via the Front Porch Forum last week asking Winooski residents to help think of ways to make the city a better place to live.

Maybe there is a calm after the storm. But, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, "It ain't over till it's over." And, my friends, until they take the vote on Monday, it ain't over.