It's a dirt-dishing backroom story nobody wants out. Not the Douglas administration and not the Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC).
It appears a member of Gov. Jim Douglas' inner circle pitched an erroneous story to a major Vermont newspaper. It was clearly designed to destroy the integrity of a leading Statehouse environmental lobbyist. It occurred just hours after the Senate Natural Resources Committee approved Wayne Laroche as the new Commissioner of Fish & Wildlife.
Seven Days has learned that on February 28, Douglas aide Jim Barnett attempted to plant a story in The Burlington Free Press that a VNRC official had publicly "lied" about his organization's position on the LaRoche appointment.
Mr. Barnett told the Freeps that VNRC communications director Patrick Berry was a "liar." His evidence was an anti-LaRoche email forwarded by a VNRC staffer and Berry's earlier comments in the Free Press stating the VNRC was not going to oppose LaRoche.
That email, sent by the VNRC's outreach director Matteo Burani, was actually a forwarded statement distributed by the Lamoille River Anglers. It accused Laroche of being a "threat to wild fish." Burani told Seven Days he is a member of the Lamoille Anglers and he was merely forwarding the group's email to friends. It was in no way, he said, a reflection of VNRC's position. And it was not sent to the VNRC membership.
Barnett didn't see it that way. The fact that it was sent out "during work time on a VNRC account urging people to call their senators sounds like an organized campaign to me."
Mr. Berry told Seven Days he first became aware of Barnett's attack "when a Free Press reporter called me and asked if I was a liar."
Under the golden dome, integrity counts big-time. One's career depends on credibility. Mr. Berry quickly set the reporter straight and called other media outlets to do "damage control." He then learned that Barnett had only pitched it to the Freeps.
Berry made it perfectly clear that the VNRC "has not opposed, lobbied against or coordinated efforts against the Laroche appointment." Berry was reluctant to comment on Mr. Barnett. After all, his organization has to deal with the Douglas administration on a host of issues.
Longtime Vermont conservationist Warner Shedd of East Calais told Seven Days he has "never experienced anything like this" in Vermont's political arena.
"It comes under the category of very dirty political tricks," said Shedd. The governor's aide, he said, was "trying to discredit a person who has an excellent reputation for integrity at the State-house."
On Tuesday, Barnett denied the accusation of engaging in "dirty tricks." In fact, he said he didn't remember if he had actually used the word "liar" when pitching the story.
"It's ridiculous," insisted Barnett, who earned his office on the Fifth Floor by serving as Candidate Douglas' campaign attack dog.
One thing's for sure. The relationship between the Douglas administration and the environmental lobby is off to a rather rocky start.
Deanwatch 2004 -- Our favorite presidential hopeful more than held his own Sunday morning on NBC's "Meet the Press." Host Tim Russert gave Howard Dean a pretty good grilling on his opposition to President George W. Bush's plan to invade Iraq. Ho-Ho stood firm. And his comment about a Bush attack giving China license to invade Taiwan got some traction on the news wires.
On Tuesday, NPR's Mara Liasson reported on the excellent traction Dean's antiwar stand is getting him in Iowa. While Dean's opponents are getting "hammered" by Iowa Democrats for their support of King Bush II, the little guy from Vermont is getting "better-than-expected crowds and standing ovations."
The war issue, said Dr. Dean, "has given me enormous visibility among Democrats, particularly in Iowa... I'm going to get a lot of Democrats who appreciate that I stood up early and said this war is the wrong war."
Also, the Dean Team is proud to announce they've raised more than $1 million and have also qualified for federal matching funds.
And Seven Days has learned that Candidate Dean has struck a deal for publication of Dean's personal vision for America's future. Dean spokesman Sweet Sue Allen told us they're not ready to release the details just yet.
Missing Candidate? -- A whole lot of people were surprised by the stunning bit of news censorship exercised by The Bur-lington Free Press in the recent mayor's race.
Progressives, Democrats and Repub-licans alike were stunned by the Freeps' decision to ignore the write-in campaign of State Rep. Kurt Wright. He even had campaign signs up in a couple wards. In the end, Rep. Wright exceeded his Seven Days prediction and received 1017 write-in votes.
Democratic City Councilor Andy Montroll, the dude Mayor Peter Clavelle defeated at the Democratic Party caucus, received 260 write-in votes.
Of course, all that's news to the readers of our local Gannett-chain daily.
Kwik Stop, a former Burlington city councilor, told Seven Days he thought The Burlington Free Press had an "obligation" to report his candidacy for Burling-ton mayor.
Most folks agree. Unfortunately, covering all the candidates in the Burlington mayor's race is not a priority over at the local daily.
Strange paper, eh?
Happy St. Patrick's Day? -- Sen. and Mrs. Patrick J. Leahy were at the new Leahy Center on the Burlington Waterfront Fri-day. Lake Champlain's greatest champion announced he has once again brought home the bacon in the form of almost $7 million in federal grants targeting Vermont's Great Lake. The buckaroos will be dispensed to a host of causes, from the Lake Champlain Basin Program to repairing the Burlington breakwater.
But the three plainclothes federal agents guarding St. Patrick's every step were an unavoidable reminder of the current state of siege in America. Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department has yet to find the culprit responsible for mailing deadly anthrax to Leahy's Capitol Hill office. Rev. Ashcroft, after all, has higher priorities, like busting medical marijuana operations that are sanctioned by state law in California. And threatening doctors in Oregon who abide by that state's landmark "Death with Dignity" law.
Asked about prospects for President George W. Bush to launch a massive invasion of Iraq, Leahy reflected the sense of gloom that's affected everyone we know who lives and works in Foggy Bottom.
Leahy noted there are "great divisions in this country over going to war." It's something the White House has so far steadfastly refused to even recognize.
"We seem to be taking war as the first step, not the last step," said St. Patrick soberly. "That is something that will come back to haunt us. We are the only superpower on Earth. We are conducting this as an almost unilateral effort, as a war against the Arab world, a war against Islam. I think that is going to create untold problems in future years."
For one thing, unlike the first U.S. invasion of Iraq, this time no one's talking about an exit strategy. It was one of the key lessons of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Once you get in, how do you get out?
But not this time. The phrase isn't even mentioned. Not by King Bush II, nor by Secretary of State Colin Powell. What does that mean, folks?
Could it mean that King Bush II plans to occupy Baghdad for the foreseeable future, or at least until the last drop of oil is sucked from beneath the sands of Arabia? And if that's the case, will Americans tolerate the use of their Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines as a private security force for Exxon-Mobil?
Is protecting the "security" of our gas-guzzling SUV culture really the same as protecting the national security of the United States?
P.S. Kudos to St. Patrick and Jeezum Jim Jeffords for hanging tough and successfully blocking the appointment of Bush crony Miguel Estrada to the federal bench. It's so refreshing to see the loyal opposition act like the loyal opposition for a change. President Bush has single-handedly managed to destroy America's image in the world community. But he's not going to get away with destroying the integrity of the Amer-ican judiciary, too.
Speaking of SUVs -- The most remarkable distinction about Saturday's Vermont Progressive Party convention at Montpelier High School was seen in the parking lot. Yours truly counted a total of 53 vehicles, but only one was an SUV, a battered red Jeep Cherokee that's seen better days.
Progressives apparently get it when it comes to gas guzzling.
But to listen to the Prog Party's executive director, you would have thought the Progs won the last election. Chris Pearson rallied the 70 mostly graying hippies in attendance by declaring the Progressive Party had "kicked butt" in the November elections.
Sorry, Chris, but holding four seats in the 150-member Vermont House isn't "butt-kicking."
And Mr. Pearson gloated over the showing of Anthony Pollina in the Lite-Gov race. Listening to Pearson, who served as Tony's paid campaign manager, you would have easily forgotten Pollina finished third with 25 percent of the vote. You would have forgotten how Tony the Prog's candidacy split the left and made it possible for Republican Brian Dubie to win the race with just 41 percent of the vote.
"At the very least, the Democratic party wishes we would go away," boasted Mr. Pearson. "That is not going to happen."
But despite Pearson's bravado, the aging Progressives in attendance made it clear they do not want to see a repeat of Pollina's crowning of Brian Dubie. The membership overwhelmingly rejected an amendment to the party's bylaws that would prevent "fusion."
Fusion refers to the successful move by Burlington's Progressive Mayor Peter Clavelle to garner the Democratic party's endorsement in the recent election. The amendment would have instituted a purity test for Progressive candidates. It would require them "to commit not to be identified on the ballot or any campaign material by any major party label other than the Progressive Party."
Former State Rep. Dean Corren of Burlap told the gathering he is "dead set against fusion under any circumstances, ever!"
Fortunately for the fledgling political party, Mr. Corren's arguments were ignored. Out of the 50 Proggies still in attendance, only five supported the purity amendment.
Mink Update -- Relaxed and rested from his vacation, Judge James Crucitti has finally issued his ruling on the motion by pro hockey puck Graham Mink of Stowe for a change of venue.
Mink, a former UVM hockey player now with the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League, was arrested in 2001 and charged with aggravated assault, a felony. A senior at the time, he was kicked off the UVM team and turned pro. The former Catamount has entered a not-guilty plea.
The Mink case, however, has dragged on much longer than anticipated. It's been a year and a half since Mr. Mink allegedly kicked an unconscious man in the head during a Friday night brawl on Buell Street.
Following a December hearing, it's taken Judge Crucitti almost three months to deny Mink's notion to move his trial out of Burlap. The defendant, through his attorney R. Jeffrey Behm, claimed media coverage had "compromised his right to a fair trial." Mink argued that jurors will associate him with the infamous UVM men's hockey hazing scandal of a few years ago.
Sure, it's a stretch, but dragging the case out until summer will allow the Minkster to finish his second complete pro hockey season without having to sit through a trial.
In Friday's ruling, Crucitti wrote, "The court finds that the defendant has failed to establish that a change of venue is appropriate."
Then on Saturday night, Mink went a little berserk in a game against the Providence Bruins. Jenn Menendez of the Portland Press Herald described the game as a "back-alley melee." According to press accounts, the Minkster gave one of the Bruins a concussion with a vicious, blind-side elbow and then managed to rough up one of the linesmen in the ensuing brawl. That earned the Vermonter an automatic 10-game suspension. The Pirates needed police protection to leave the arena.
As we go to press Tuesday, the AHL is reviewing the videotape of the game. Further sanctions are expected.
As for Mink's case in District Court, no hearing is scheduled as of Tuesday. No trial date is in sight.
One thing's clear. Violent behavior is dealt with much quicker by the AHL than by the Vermont criminal justice system.