'TV T.J.' Donovan: The Likely Next AG Pushes Criminal Justice Reform | Crime | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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'TV T.J.' Donovan: The Likely Next AG Pushes Criminal Justice Reform


Published September 21, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.

T.J. Donovan talking to reporters - MARC NADEL
  • Marc Nadel
  • T.J. Donovan talking to reporters

T.J. Donovan was running behind schedule last Friday morning. He was supposed to be in plea negotiations on a pending fraud case, and then in a meeting with his top deputy prosecutors. So he got a little annoyed when a secretary reminded him, "You promised Dan Sedon 10 minutes."

Sedon, one of Vermont's most respected defense attorneys, represents 17-year-old Bradley Senna, whose 1 p.m. arraignment on a second-degree murder charge had Donovan's office buzzing in anticipation. But that's not what Sedon wanted to chat about in a conference room adjacent to Donovan's office on the third floor of Burlington's superior court.

Instead, Sedon had a pitch for the prosecutor: He proposed that Donovan help lead a statewide public relations and education campaign to combat opiate abuse, similar to the national anti-tobacco campaign that reduced smoking.

"You've got to bend the curve," said Sedon, who is based in Orange County. "I don't see bumper stickers; I don't see ads, billboards. It should be everywhere."

Donovan, who had started the meeting with some reluctance, began to warm to the idea.

"So how do we do it? Because I agree with you," Donovan said. "No one says, 'I want to be a heroin addict today.'"

"Enlist Vermonters in the cause. Enlist creative people," Sedon said. "We'll never solve the problem until the whole culture gets behind it."

Sedon was making his case to the right guy. While nominally still the top law enforcement officer in Chittenden County, charged with overseeing 30 staffers and 5,000 cases annually, Donovan is the overwhelming favorite to win election as Vermont's attorney general in November. The current AG, 19-year incumbent Bill Sorrell, is retiring.

Not since Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) had Donovan's job has a public prosecutor in Vermont been so politically adept — or ambitious. "The politics is closer to the surface with his administration than we have seen with prior state's attorneys in Chittenden County," said former Burlington police chief Michael Schirling, whose officers sent their cases to Donovan's office for prosecution.

Some people in judicial circles call Donovan "TV T.J.," and he confesses to a fondness for bright lights. His decision to challenge Attorney General Sorrell in the 2012 Democratic primary, which narrowly failed, was seen as a ballsy move in a state where contested primaries are rare. Virtually everyone in Vermont politics — including his own legislator mother — thinks Donovan could use the attorney general job as a springboard to a higher office.

"There's a joke that AG means 'aspiring governor,'" said Donovan's opponent, St. Johnsbury attorney Deb Bucknam. Despite her token challenge, Donovan has amassed a $260,000 campaign war chest, including contributions from well-heeled out-of state attorneys, that could come in handy in future races.

But if Donovan has electoral ambitions, he is also credited with taking bold — and politically risky — steps to upend the criminal justice system and scrap the traditional law-and-order playbook, years before those ideas were politically popular.

While many prosecutors, including Leahy, talked tough on crime en route to higher offices, Donovan has built a reputation for giving breaks to people who have broken the law. He has occasionally irritated police, and he counts defense attorneys among his most ardent supporters.

Two of Donovan's signature initiatives — a program to divert drug addicts out of the court system and an amnesty day for mostly poor people who have accumulated hundreds of dollars in overdue traffic fines — are being replicated throughout the state.

"I used to be more cynical, thinking the stuff he's doing is just for the next election, but look at what he tries to do on the ground — you can't argue with it," said Defender General Matt Valerio, who supervises dozens of public defenders who do battle with prosecutors on a daily basis. "A lot of the ideas that he has put forward have been floated by the defense bar, social workers, treatment people and the like. But it took a prosecutor to take those ideas to the mainstream. The unique magic he has is, he uses the pulpit of a prosecutor to advance some of these more progressive criminal justice ideas."

Donovan says he is trying to fix a broken system that has ruined countless lives without improving safety. The Burlington native, who had his own brush with the law, personally knows many of the people he has prosecuted.

"Anyone who has done this long enough can see the failure of the system," Donovan, 42, said. "You're in court. You see the same people time and time again, and you ask, 'Why?' We know who the bad guys are. It's a small percentage, maybe 15 to 20 percent of the caseload. The rest are good people, and they deserve a chance. The vast majority of them are experiencing issues of housing, mental health, addiction, lack of education, poverty. If our job is public safety, we can't just throw them in jail and say, 'Fix your behavior,' when we haven't addressed the underlying crises."

Once an electoral career killer, that forgiving philosophy is gaining traction nationwide. In the past two years, President Barack Obama has commuted 562 sentences for nonviolent criminals — more than his past nine predecessors combined — and called for an end to mass incarceration.

Donovan beat Obama to it. "T.J. ... has developed a long-standing platform and reputation for the kinds of initiatives that he is going to take," Schirling acknowledged. But he's not just being altruistic, Schirling added. "There's a political thread that runs through all of this, and he doesn't try to hide that."

Quite the contrary: Donovan embraces it.

Big Fish

T.J. Donovan talking to reporters - MARK DAVIS
  • Mark Davis
  • T.J. Donovan talking to reporters

Donovan's day had started almost two hours earlier, at the Sheraton Burlington Hotel and Conference Center, where he met with two men who launched a special court program for veterans in Massachusetts.

Donovan peppered the men with questions and, with deft prosecutorial probing, exhumed a crucial nugget of information in the jumble of facts they threw at him: Any veteran who serves more than 60 days in prison loses his or her military benefits, including access to treatment programs. That could happen even under a relatively generous plea deal for many low-level crimes.

"I didn't know that!" Donovan said. "I guarantee you no one in the Vermont criminal justice system knows that. Again, the unintended consequences of the system."

Donovan returned to the courthouse and hustled up the stairs to his third-floor office — he claims to never use an elevator — met with Sedon, and then ducked into the hallway for a few minutes.

WCAX-TV needed a quick, on-camera interview on the Senna case. Donovan bantered easily with reporter Kyle Midura, asking about a wedding the reporter had recently attended before delivering succinct answers in a three-minute interview.

Then: a case he excitedly labeled "classic Vermont." After a long investigation, a Plattsburgh man was charged with fraud for submitting a 10-pound walleye that he might not have caught during last year's Lake Champlain International fishing derby. The fraudulent fish netted him the $13,000 grand prize.

LCI president James Ehlers, a longtime Donovan friend and environmental activist, and public defender Sandra Lee sat down with the prosecutor to try to hammer out a settlement and compensate the fishermen who won lesser prizes.

"Your guy has to pay," Donovan told Lee.

"My guy absolutely wants to work something out," she told him.

The three of them haggled back and forth, until Donovan got a phone call and had to leave the meeting. Judge James Crucitti had summoned him for a private chat.

When he returned to Lee and Ehlers, they resumed talks but quickly realized that working out restitution would be more complicated than anyone expected, and the group broke up without a deal in place.

From fish fraud, Donovan turned his attention to homicide cases. In the same conference room, he convened deputy prosecutors Susan Hardin, who handles many of the office's homicide and sex assault cases, and Bram Kranichfeld, who is viewed as Donovan's probable successor.

Donovan ran quickly through several pending high-profile homicides, asking Hardin whether it was time to make plea offers in any of them.

They grappled for 10 minutes trying to decide whether to offer one defendant a deal on a manslaughter charge or pursue a second-degree murder charge at trial, despite some concerns about the strength of their evidence.

"I think it's a second-degree case, but I see the risk, to be honest with you," Donovan said. He then instructed his office administrator to clear Hardin's caseload for the coming week.

"No question about it: top priority, this case," Donovan said. "Give away the other stuff. Get rid of the shit cases. That's the priority ... OK, what else do I need to know?"

Donovan doesn't handle most of the cases that come to his office. As he acknowledges, he is more of an administrator than a courtroom prosecutor. In other Vermont counties, where state's attorneys have only a few deputies, the top prosecutors often personally try homicides and high-profile cases and, if their colleagues are swamped, lower-level ones, too.

With a dozen deputies at his disposal, Donovan views his job as setting the tone, supporting his subordinates and staying out of their way. As years have gone on, he said, he has become increasingly focused on policy — and his campaign.

"You have to delegate, especially in this office," he said. "I don't think the Chittenden County state's attorney can be the top trial lawyer. The job is too big."

That kind of hands-off approach is the last thing the AG's office needs, according to Bucknam. She expressed concern that as the state's law enforcement officer, Donovan would be more interested in "what looks good and what sits well with the press and public."

Dem Donovans

Donovan stands six feet tall and has dark hair and a small but growing bald patch. He has two sons, ages 6 and 4, with his wife, Jessica McCloud, a mental health counselor. They live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood between Spear Street and Route 7 in South Burlington.

Donovan is a born raconteur who easily engages people. That includes defendants and their friends and families in the courthouse and on the street. His most distinctive feature is a raspy voice that sounds like it's in perpetual need of a throat lozenge.

"He's certainly not a shy guy," according to his mother, Rep. Johannah "Joey" Leddy Donovan (D-Burlington), an influential Statehouse liberal. "He loves working a room, he loves talking to people and he loves listening ... and hearing their stories. I think that's probably what he's most effective at doing."

Donovan is a basketball nerd, whose primary motivation at Burlington High School, as his mother remembers it, was keeping his grades up so he could stay on the team. He unwinds most winter nights watching college hoops on ESPN: When Donovan learned that this reporter attended the University of Maryland, he rattled off the starting lineup of the school's basketball team — from 2002.

If he wasn't a prosecutor, Donovan says, he would have been a high school history teacher and basketball coach.

But politics runs in the family.

Donovan, who has five sisters, was born into Vermont Democratic royalty. Burlington's Leddy Park is named after his grandfather, Bernard; President Lyndon Johnson promoted him from district to federal judge after Leddy narrowly lost in the 1958 governor's race. Donovan's mother is currently serving her 16th year in the legislature. Only one other Irish-Catholic clan — the Sorrells — wielded comparable influence in Burlington.

Sorrell declined an interview request for this story.

"I grew up in a house where politicians were larger than life," Donovan said. "A Ward 6 city council race was like the presidential election in my house."

Donovan's late father, Thomas, was a general practice attorney in Burlington who worked solo, handling everything from estates to low-level criminal cases. He told his children about his clients and some of the struggles they faced.

The tales of woe made an impression on young T.J., who read a lot but was an "indifferent student," as he phrased it. At 18, he became a defendant himself when a boys' night out on Church Street turned into a violent melee. Donovan, who described the incident as a fistfight between two groups of men who "probably had too much to drink," was charged with aggravated assault. As part of a plea deal, he received a three-year deferred sentence. He completed 100 hours of community service, paid a $1,000 fine and eventually had the conviction expunged. A felony conviction on his record would have made it difficult for Donovan to borrow money for school and could have complicated his bid to become a lawyer — or even execute his backup plan of working as a teacher.

Donovan graduated from Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., in 1996. He then took a yearlong break back home, where he drove the courtesy shuttle for a Burlington car dealership, before leaving for Suffolk Law School in Boston. Post-bar, he landed a job as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, prosecuting mostly low-level drug cases.

For the first time, he saw gross inequities in the criminal justice system.

"That really was a unbelievable eye-opener for him to the issues of poverty and certainly to the issues of race," his mother said. "He quickly realized he was prosecuting poor people and often people of color, and ... reckoning with the fact that some people in our society do not get the same chances as others."

Donovan returned to Vermont, worked as deputy state's attorney in the Chittenden County State's Attorney's Office, then left for private practice at Jarvis & Kaplan.

When his old boss, former Chittenden County state's attorney Bob Simpson, retired in 2006, Donovan ran for the job. With the backing of his influential family, he knocked off deputy John St. Francis with more than 70 percent of the vote, securing a four-year term. In the spirit of Abraham Lincoln's "team of rivals," he kept St. Francis on as a deputy.

The Power of Forgiveness

T.J. Donovan meeting courtroom vistors - MARK DAVIS
  • Mark Davis
  • T.J. Donovan meeting courtroom vistors

Almost immediately Donovan started using his office as a testing ground for his theories on criminal justice reform.

His signal achievement, which Donovan touts at every public appearance, is Rapid Intervention Community Court, which he launched in 2010. The idea is to identify repeat, nonviolent criminals — the people Donovan said he sees in court over and over — and remove them from the criminal justice system before they ever step foot in a courtroom. RICC officials help the defendants get into treatment and counseling. If they succeed in their required programs and stay out of trouble, the criminal charge never gets filed. If they flunk out, they answer to the charge.

RICC has been the highest-profile initiative in Vermont to upend the traditional, punitive approach to justice. Last year alone, nearly 250 people who would have been charged and likely convicted of crimes graduated from RICC without ever seeing a judge.

An early study suggested that defendants were less likely to reoffend if they made it through RICC. In 2014, Gov. Peter Shumlin and lawmakers, hell-bent on addressing Vermont's "opiate crisis," passed a law that aimed to duplicate the program in every county in the state. While the initiative has sputtered, responsibility for its statewide implementation recently switched from the Department of Corrections to the Attorney General's Office. Many say the move anticipates Donovan running that office.

RICC has out-of-state admirers, too. New York City corporate attorney Richard Raysman stumbled across Donovan's program while serving on a New York State Bar Association committee devoted to recently released inmates. He was so impressed that he cut Donovan a $1,000 campaign check, introduced him to several influential New Yorkers and arranged for him to meet with the staff of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.

"I think T.J. is doing the right thing, but it's difficult for a prosecutor to take that position because they get elected by saying, 'We're going to make the city safe,'" Raysman, a Republican, said. "It's courageous, what T.J. has been doing."

In March 2015, Donovan announced the Costello Courthouse would shut down normal operations for a day to host a driver restoration day. Motorists whose licenses had been suspended because of unpaid traffic tickets could pay $20 per infraction and get their privileges restored.

The initiative was designed to address a problem that doesn't garner headlines but, experts say, has devastating consequences for the poor. More than 20,000 Vermonters have delinquent traffic tickets, and many are unable to pay and so lose their license. But they keep driving to work, get pulled over by police for driving with suspended licenses, and slowly accumulate more and more fines. Activists call it a "poverty trap."

Donovan said he initially expected that only a few hundred people would take advantage of the amnesty. But more than 1,000 showed up on a frigid March day, lining downtown sidewalks around the courthouse for a quarter mile in every direction, waiting hours in the cold to get inside.

Halfway through the day, Donovan slipped outside and walked the line. He shook hands, joked with people, asked about their siblings and loved ones. Everyone seemed to know him — or at least knew his name.

In the following months, other Vermont counties held driver restoration days based on Donovan's model.

"The driver restoration thing, he didn't have to do that, but it's the right thing to do," longtime Vermont attorney Robert Appel said. "Why beat up on poor people more than they are already beaten? I think he understands more than most in his position what it's like."

In addition to the headline-grabbing initiatives, Donovan and his deputies have made hundreds of small decisions to siphon cases away from the court system. He is known among defense attorneys for cutting generous plea deals with nonviolent criminals. And his office often refuses to even file low-level check forgery cases — common among the poor and drug addicts — along with scores of unlawful trespass, retail theft, low-level prostitution and other misdemeanors that often stem from drug use and mental health issues.

"Most people want to do the right thing, but for a variety of reasons they don't," Donovan said. "We don't have to overreach and over-punish people."

Crime and Punishment

Not surprisingly, Donovan's attitude hasn't endeared him to cops.

Though he has scored the endorsement of the Vermont Troopers Association — the union traditionally sides with Democratic candidates — Donovan acknowledged an oft-strained relationship with local police. His job, as he sees it, is to act as a filter between law enforcement and the courts, not simply to pass along cases that police build.

"Cops would like every arrest they make to be prosecuted, and they get frustrated with seeing recidivists back on the street," Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said.

South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple was less diplomatic.

Concerned about a spike in local prostitution, his department spent weeks in the summer of 2014 building a case that eventually resulted in the arrest of seven men whom an undercover officer lured from outside the area for a purported rendezvous. Whipple's department sent out a press release touting the arrests. But Donovan quickly dropped the charges against the men and had them attend a class about the "complex circumstances that underlie prostitution."

"At first, the officers were incredibly upset, and I was like, 'What?'" Whipple said. "There have been things I haven't agreed with, and I call him up and say, 'T.J., what are you doing? Why did you dump it? It's a good case.' The thing I can say is, he always takes my calls, and sometimes we get somewhere, and sometimes he goes, 'Trevor, I'm sorry you don't like it, but that's what I've done.'"

Donovan further risked his reputation among local law enforcement by pursuing criminal charges against Winooski police officer Jason Nokes. In April 2013, Nokes shot and wounded an unarmed paranoid schizophrenic, Isaac Sage, after the mentally ill man failed to obey Noke's commands and punched the police officer in the face.

In almost all cases involving police use of force, local prosecutors defer to the Vermont Attorney General's Office, which traditionally clears the officer of wrongdoing.

Donovan took the unusual step of presenting the case to a grand jury, which returned indictments against Nokes. He then took the case to court.

It was the first time in recent memory that a Vermont cop faced criminal charges for shooting a civilian. Nokes eventually pled guilty to two misdemeanors and forfeited his right to work again in law enforcement.

Former Winooski police chief Steve McQueen said the case created "a conflict" among his officers that made it "challenging" to keep them in line. Donovan put him in a tough spot. "I may have disagreed with the decision to prosecute, but I still had to respect it," McQueen recalled.

"It's about public trust, and an unarmed mentally ill man got shot," Donovan said in his own defense. "Those are the facts. It was the right decision to make. Sure, people may not talk to me anymore. That's life."

Not long after prosecuting Nokes, Donovan surprised observers by launching a campaign to unseat Sorrell, whose family has been friends with Donovan's for decades.

Though he started out relatively unknown outside Chittenden County, Donovan initially raised more money and scored more newspaper endorsements than Sorrell. As Election Day grew near, Donovan said, he felt increasingly confident of scoring an upset.

"I went into that race to win. I'm not sure the other side anticipated how hard we would work. I worked my tail off," Donovan said. "I outworked him, outorganized him ... but a few things happened at the end."

Two things happened. A super PAC connected to the Democratic Attorneys General Association launched a $200,000 television advertising blitz on behalf of Sorrell.

And Seven Days became the first media outlet to report that Donovan had been arrested and charged with aggravated assault for a fracas on Church Street when he was 18 years old.

Donovan acknowledged the incident and has since made it part of his personal narrative: The prosecutor has known trouble and seen firsthand the benefits that can come from getting a second chance.

Does that make him empathetic, opportunistic — or both? Bucknam warned that such maneuvering should "give voters pause."

'Hey, T.J., Can We Talk?'

At noon, Donovan slipped out for a quick three-mile run in downtown Burlington — something he tries to do four days a week. He was back and showered in time for Senna's 1 p.m. arraignment in a courtroom packed with security officers, distraught community members and television cameras.

On August 27, the 17-year-old Senna allegedly got into a drunken fight with 54-year-old David Hojohn in downtown Winooski. Felled by a punch, Hojohn had to be hospitalized; the teenager was charged with aggravated assault. Eleven days later, Hojohn died. Cause of death: blunt force trauma to the head. Donovan's office upgraded the charge to second-degree murder, necessitating a new arraignment.

Hardin handled the brief proceeding. Donovan sat a row behind her, listening intently as Sedon tried to argue that there was not enough evidence to support the murder charge. Judge Dennis Pearson disagreed and ordered Senna held without bail pending trial.

Outside the courtroom, as reporters gathered near a corner window, a group of Senna's friends huddled together in the nearby hallway and spoke angrily about seeking retribution on his behalf. Some quietly threatened to start trouble with Hojohn's family, standing a few feet away, just out of earshot. Others struggled to understand how one punch could lead to a murder charge.

Though Donovan had been quiet through the hearing and his name was never mentioned in court, everyone in the courtroom seemed to know him.

"Hey, T.J., can we talk, brother?" a tattooed twentysomething friend of Senna's asked Donovan as he walked out of the courtroom. Donovan nodded, then ducked into a conference room.

He emerged to a small cluster of TV cameras, joked comfortably with the reporters and answered questions about the case. The clips ran that night on every major Vermont station.

A few minutes later, in his office one floor above the courtroom, Donovan and his team met with Hojohn's family. He had previously prosecuted some of them for low-level crimes, including Hojohn's son, whom he told:

"I don't give a shit about the past, all right? This is about your old man and what happened, all right? So let's move forward."

By 3 p.m., it was time to leave the courthouse. The Vermont State Employees' Association, perhaps the state's most influential union, was holding its annual banquet at Killington resort that evening, and all the major Democrat candidates were expected to attend and press the flesh.

Whytnee Bush, Donovan's sole campaign staffer, picked him up and steered her car south on Route 7. About 30 minutes into the drive, Donovan peered up from his phone and announced an unexpected stop: Before arriving in Killington, they would swing through Rutland and meet that city's mayor, Chris Louras, a Donovan supporter who is under immense criticism for backing a plan to bring 100 Syrian refugees to his struggling city.

"Hang in there. Let me know if there is anything I can do," Donovan told Louras at a downtown coffee shop, before posing for a quick picture with Louras that within minutes was posted to the campaign's Instagram account.

Then it was on to the VSEA dinner at the swanky Killington Grand Resort Hotel.

The dining room was full of state employees, campaign staff and volunteers. Having already secured the VSEA's endorsement, Donovan waved and gave a thumbs-up when his name was mentioned, drank a beer, ate some rubber chicken, slapped backs, posed for pictures, passed out campaign stickers and slipped out the door before the other candidates, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter and lieutenant governor hopeful Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden).

Next stop: Choices Restaurant. A few days earlier, Burlington attorney Norman Blais had mentioned to Donovan that his brother Claude owns an eatery in Killington. Donovan wanted to stop and say hi. "Just for a minute, make the connection," Donovan told Bush.

He hopped out of her car and meandered up a sloping walkway to the half-full restaurant. "We're looking for every vote there is," he said, to no one in particular.

Inside, the hostess was not at her stand, but a cook passed by. Donovan asked if he could see Claude.

"He's pretty busy behind the line," the cook said. "What's your name?"

"T.J. Donovan."

A minute later, Claude Blais emerged for a quick, friendly chat. That turned into an invitation to grab a beer. Of course, Donovan said yes. Fiddlehead in hand, he worked patrons at the U-shaped bar for 45 minutes.

"Hi, I'm T.J. Donovan, I'm running for attorney general, State of Vermont," he said time and again. Some recognized him; most didn't: Tourist-filled Killington is probably not the best place to troll for votes.

As Donovan chatted up a middle-age couple sipping white wine at the bar, Blais surveyed the crowd and confided to this reporter: "Only one of them lives in Vermont."

Donovan didn't appear to care. He was in his element, sidling up to people, making connections without disrupting anyone's evening for too long.

One got the impression that, were he not running for anything, he'd probably be doing the exact same thing — although maybe in more comfortable clothing.

Donovan's two kids were probably fast asleep by the time Donovan said his goodbyes, slumped into Bush's shotgun seat, cranked the Tragically Hip — his favorite band — and started singing and air drumming, a full 14 hours after his day started.

"This," he said, as the music blared and the car cut through the black Vermont night two hours from home, "is what it's all about."