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T.J. Comes Clean: Vermont AG Candidate Had a Criminal Record of His Own

Fair Game


Published June 13, 2012 at 11:14 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
T.J. Donovan
  • T.J. Donovan

The man who wants to be Vermont’s chief prosecutor hasn’t always stayed on the right side of the law. Twenty years ago, Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan was arrested after a drunken fight and charged with aggravated assault.

Donovan describes the incident as a “fistfight” between two groups of young men on Church Street who “probably had too much to drink.” Donovan was 18 years old at the time and had recently graduated from Burlington High School. The fight left one man with a chipped tooth, for which Donovan was held responsible.

As part of a plea deal, the aggravated-assault charge was reduced to misdemeanor simple assault, and Donovan received a three-year deferred sentence. After completing 100 hours of community service and an alcohol assessment — and paying the victim roughly $1000 in restitution — the crime was expunged from Donovan’s record.

“I did something stupid that I regret, that I’m ashamed about, that I’ve taken responsibility for, that happened in this town I grew up in, that embarrassed my family,” Donovan says. “I’ve never hid from it. I’ve tried to learn from it.”

Does a drunken, violent incident that took place when Donovan was just out of high school raise concerns about his suitability for the state’s top law enforcement job? Quite the contrary, Donovan insists. He says the incident instilled in him a unique understanding of what it’s like to screw up at a young age.

“Because of my own personal struggles and that embarrassment and shame that is still part of me close to 20 years later, I have great empathy for people who struggle. I have great empathy for people who need a helping hand. I have great empathy for people who deserve a second chance because I was the beneficiary of a lot of second chances,” Donovan said. “I would say this gives me great insight into what we can do differently in the criminal justice system. I’ve lived it and I’ve tried to give back through the work I’ve done as a prosecutor.”

Donovan is engaged in a heated race with 15-year incumbent Bill Sorrell for the Democratic nomination for AG. Though he has twice run for state’s attorney in Vermont’s most populous county, Donovan’s criminal record has not been previously reported. Fair Game received an anonymous tip through the mail about the incident, which Donovan immediately confirmed when asked.

“I have no clue where this came from, but I’m not surprised that with two and a half months to go [until the election], somebody writes an anonymous letter about something that occurred 20 years ago,” he says.

Asked to comment on the issue, Sorrell says, “I’m sure that whatever happened, he regrets, and it’s in the past and that’s where I’m going to leave it.”

As state’s attorney, Donovan says he has often raised the subject of his troubled youth.

“I’ve tried to use it as a teachable moment for a lot of young people, tell them while they’re in court that this does not have to define them — that they can learn from this and they can emerge stronger from it,” he says.

Donovan says he struggled with alcohol-related problems throughout his teens and twenties. A year or two before the fistfight, he says, the cops busted him for underage drinking.

“I have a distinct memory of my father picking me up at the Burlington police station after I’d been picked up for drinking,” he recalls. “That was not a fun trip home.”

After graduating from Suffolk University Law School, Donovan says he did not mention the assault charge in his application to join the bar. His father, who is also an attorney, advised him that he did not have to report an offense that had been expunged from his record.

Donovan, 38, describes himself these days as a “social drinker” who has matured and learned how to imbibe responsibly. But he’s quick to say he’s still “no saint.”

“I don’t quote George Bush often but I’ll quote him here: ‘When I was young and stupid, I was really young and stupid,’” Donovan says. “I am far from a perfect person. I’ve made mistakes in my life. I’ll continue to make mistakes. But I try to do the right thing. I’m not always successful, but I try.”

All Politics Is Personnel

Two months after taking office, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger finally unveiled a few of his picks Monday for the city’s 35 mayoral appointments.

So who’s staying and who’s going?

Those getting another yearlong term include police chief Michael Schirling, fire chief Seth Lasker, Department of Public Works director Steve Goodkind and Burlington Electric Department general manager Barbara Grimes.

As he did with Community and Economic Development director Larry Kupferman in April, Weinberger gave the heave-ho to Parks and Recreation director Mari Steinbach — though both will continue serving in their positions until the mayor names their respective replacements.

“I came to the conclusion that it was important to have new leadership, new direction in the Parks and Recreation Department,” Weinberger says, declining to elaborate on why he’s axing Steinbach.

Weinberger is still nailing down permanent picks for several top city-hall jobs. He’s asked interim chief administrative officer Paul Sisson to stay on through the end of September, pending the completion of a national search. The mayor says he expects to name a new city attorney and CEDO director soon, after which he’ll turn his attention to filling other posts.

Meanwhile, Weinberger has proposed a reorganization of the mayor’s office that would increase his personal staff from two to three. Citing the need for “additional capacity,” the mayor has asked the city council to create a new position called “Assistant to the Mayor for Open Government, Innovation and Mayoral Initiatives.”

Try fitting that on your business card!

So committed to transparency is Weinberger that he’s already filled the yet-to-be-created “open-government” job. He temporarily hired former city councilor and state representative Carina Driscoll last Monday to perform the job’s duties until it’s formally approved and she can be appointed. Driscoll, a former Weinberger campaign adviser, is the stepdaughter of Progfather Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who endorsed Weinberger in the closing days of his mayoral race.

When councilors learned about Driscoll’s hiring during a budget work session last Thursday, at least one was miffed about, well, the lack of transparency in the process.

“It seems a little ironic that it would be an open-government position, but that it wouldn’t be fully vetted or announced or anything,” says Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2). “I’m not opposed to him making the necessary reorganization to be successful, but I just think if he’s going to be changing the structure of city government, he should be justifying it publicly.”

Windfall City

Last week Fair Game reported that Gov. Peter Shumlin is likely to serve as the next chairman of the Democratic Governors Association — the Beltway bundler of union and corporate cash for fellow Democratic governors’ campaigns. On Wednesday this week, Shummy takes off to Chicago for an overnight trip to attend what his office calls a CEO Roundtable event hosted by the DGA.

While in the Windy City, the Green Mountain gov will take in a Cubs game with five fellow governors and some special friends after a “rooftop reception over Wrigley Field,” according to a conference schedule. He’ll also rub elbows at breakfast with members of the DGA’s Founders’ Circle and Chairman’s Board. A 2010 story in the New York Times calculated the cost of membership in those exclusive clubs at $250,000 and $100,000, respectively.

The DGA declined to provide a list of those attending the conference, but a spokesperson said the organization expects to raise $1 million during the Chicago event. Shumlin aide Alex MacLean provided the names of those participating in three morning “policy discussions.” They include representatives of Aetna, BlueCross BlueShield, Walgreens, WellCare Health Plans, Ameresco, Covanta Energy, AT&T and a slew of labor unions.

The DGA, MacLean says, will pick up the tab for the trip.

Not So Fast

With his email announcement Tuesday that he would seek reelection as governor, Shumlin put to rest months of not-terribly-believable coyness about his electoral intentions.

Another longtime Vermont pol is being considerably less coy about his reelection plans — and it isn’t who you think.

Last week Fair Game speculated that Shumlin might have his eye on Sen. Patrick Leahy’s seat, should the senior senator decide to hang up his hat in 2016 after 42 years on the job. In response, Leahy spokesman David Carle sent an email that said, essentially: not so fast.

Referring to an annual Democratic fundraising dinner held last month, Carle said, “In case you weren’t at the Curtis Awards dinner, I’d merely note that [Leahy] said there that he looks forward to using the Leahy blue again in 2016…”

Never too early to dust off the vintage 1974 lawn signs.

Media Notes

The Vermont press corps is losing one of its best — and definitely wonkiest — reporters. VTDigger.org’s health care and energy reporter, Alan Panebaker, is leaving the online news site to take a job as northeast stewardship director for American Whitewater — a conservation and recreation nonprofit dedicated to protecting totally gnarly white-water runs.

Why is Panebaker, a journalism and law school grad, selling out to Big Whitewater?

“Digger’s been awesome,” he says. “It’s just a really sweet opportunity because I’m really focused on white-water kayaking.”

Yeah, brah!

Both Digger and the Vermont Press Bureau — which recently lost reporter Jenna Pizzi to the Times of Trenton — are looking for new Statehouse reporters. In case you’re into that kind of thing…