EB-5 cleanup leaves investors anxious

July 20, 2018

The two latest steps in the fallout from Vermont's EB-5 scandal have been a mixed bag for the state. 

Last week, the federal government notified officials that the Vermont EB-5 Regional Center would be immediately shut down, a direct result of the state's failure to stop a massive fraud scheme. Days later, the state announced a civil settlement against the developers at the center of the fraud.

While the settlement provides some restitution for the city of Newport, which is still recovering from the botched development, the federal notice to end the EB-5 program was a major blow. With multiple EB-5 projects still underway, hundreds of investors could be left in limbo.

The state is appealing the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services decision. But Russell Barr, a Stowe attorney representing a group of investors in litigation against the state, says fighting the shutdown is a lost cause. 

"They did not take the appropriate approach with USCIS from day one. They did not sit down with them and say, 'we made a mistake,'" Barr says. "And that has created a whole host of issues for the investors."

Barr says the state's settlement also provides no relief for those investors, despite the fact that the suit sought full restitution for investors when it was first filed. "We all know now that not one penny of that settlement went to our clients."

On this week's podcast, Barr describes the resolution investors want to see. Commissioner of Financial Regulation Mike Pieciak talks about making the state's case to the federal government. Assistant Attorney General Kate Gallagher, who led the state's case against the Jay Peak developers, discusses what the recent civil settlement means for the state. And VTDigger's Alan Keays talks about the open questions around the state's accountability.


UVM nurses strike for staffing relief

July 13, 2018

For three months, nurses at the UVM Medical Center have been negotiating with hospital administrators for higher wages and better staffing ratios. When the two parties couldn’t reach an agreement this week, the nurses took to the picket lines.

"The energy has been really high, but also emotional," said Molly Wallner, a registered nurse at UVM who walked out Thursday morning. "It does feel sad to feel like we can't be there for our patients today."


Hospital administrators maintain that their vacancy rate is in line with other health care institutions, and the salaries they pay all employees reflect fair rates for their industry.

Wallner, who serves on the union's bargaining committee, said those points don't change the effects of nurses feeling chronically understaffed. "When you continue to be that stretched," she said, "it really is at the expense of the patients."

The union is holding a 48-hour strike: Wallner and her colleagues return to work on Saturday morning. But the tension between workers and management at Vermont's largest hospital may be far from a resolution.

On this week's podcast, Wallner and other union allies make their case for salary and staffing increases. Hospital administrators hold the line on contract terms. And VTDigger health care reporter Mike Faher discusses the ramifications for the UVM Health Network and its leaders.


Vermonters raise voices towards the southern border

July 5, 2018

As the Trump administration's immigration enforcement policies continue to spark backlash around the U.S., Vermonters are examining how one of the country's northernmost states relates to policies affecting the southwest border.

Last year, a federal law enforcement tipline based in Williston received an uptick in calls under the Trump administration — including citizen reports of suspected undocumented immigrants. Civil liberties advocates worry that programs like these turn neighbors into extensions of immigration enforcement agents.

Meanwhile, awareness of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" border prosecution policy has expanded.

Public pressure led President Donald Trump to sign an executive order halting the practice of separating immigrant children from their parents. But protesters at nationwide rallies, including events in Montpelier and Burlington, have called for the administration to reunite separated families and cease its practice of indefinitely detaining immigrants.

Some politicians have gone farther, suggesting that the federal government abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, entirely. Rep. Peter Welch and Sen. Patrick Leahy have criticized the agency but hedged on calling for its dismantling. Sen. Bernie Sanders, however, has proposed that ICE be restructured alongside other federal immigration divisions.

On this week's podcast, VTDigger's Elizabeth Hewitt describes how ICE operates in Vermont and beyond, and what thousands of concerned Vermonters want to see the agency do differently.


How cannabis case law will shape legalization

June 29, 2018

July 1st marks the first date that Vermonters will be allowed to possess and grow marijuana under state law. According to Tim Fair, a Burlington attorney specializing in cannabis-related cases, the legal implications of that move extend far beyond what’s specified in statute.

“Every cannabis case so far in the history of the United States has been taken with the concept of cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance and illegal contraband,” Fair says.

“Now, with legalization, that turns all of those decisions on their heads.”

Fair says he chose to specialize in cannabis cases because of the opportunity to set new precedent. Vermont’s new marijuana law could provide plenty of opportunities to do so.

On this week’s podcast, Tim Fair describes how he’s advising cannabis clients on navigating the law's gray areas — and what could come after legalization in Vermont.


Lessons learned from the ‘61 standoff

June 22, 2018

As the budget standoff in Montpelier reaches into the summer, a common refrain among analysts is that it’s the closest Vermont has come to a government shutdown since 1961. That year’s legislative session lasted a record 210 days, as a governor who pledged to avoid tax increases faced off against a Senate leader with his own priorities.

Stephen Terry, a Vermont journalist who co-wrote a book about 1960s state politics, says the dynamics that year were muted compared to today.

Terry says a shutdown was never really on the table in the summer of ‘61: Legislators voted to extend the session into August well before risking a budget-less government. And while the governor that year moved to keep tax rates level, spending issues took a backseat to “personality issues.”

Ray Keyser, a former speaker of the House, was the youngest person in history to occupy the governor’s office. He found a rival in Asa Bloomer, then the Senate president pro tem, who fought Keyser’s proposals. Delaying adjournment was just one of Bloomer’s tactics.

The 1961 battle had consequences. It widened an already significant rift between the governor’s office and the Legislature. And it set the stage for the historic election of 1962, when freshman legislator Phil Hoff became the first Democrat elected governor in over a century.

On this week’s podcast, Stephen Terry recounts the legislative struggles of 1961 — and the lessons learned in the years that followed.


More mergers loom under school plan’s next phase

June 15, 2018

As schools around Vermont go quiet for the year, the effects of the state's 2015 consolidation law are increasingly visible.

Earlier this month, the Agency of Education kicked off phase two of Act 46, recommending that 43 districts that haven't yet volunteered to merge do so next year.

State Board of Education Chair Krista Huling reiterated this week that the plan is meant to provide educational opportunities through larger governance systems. But, she said, "not everybody's happy with these decisions." 

And if districts opt not to implement the state's recommendations? "Under law, the state board has the authority to merge districts," she said. "That's where these conversations become very difficult."

Meanwhile, some districts that already volunteered to merge are seeing local schools shutter. In Chelsea, a pro-merger vote last fall led to the closure this week of the town's high school, which has served as a linchpin of the community for a century.

“It’s been a very trying and frustrating process,” said Chelsea Principal Mark Blount. He knows the school will look very different next year — but recognizes that residents were "loud and clear" in voting to become a choice district for high schoolers. 

On this week's podcast, go inside Chelsea High School's last days with Hechinger Report editor Caroline Preston. Plus, Krista Huling describes what's next for the state's recommended merger plan.


Marijuana offenders face clean slates

June 7, 2018

In the coming week, state’s attorneys in two counties will hold "Expungement Days," offering assistance to Vermonters looking to clear their records of misdemeanor marijuana convictions.

The initiative comes weeks ahead of the July 1 start date for the state's new policy that legalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana.

"Why should a person be saddled with a conviction for a lifetime, for behavior that will be legal as of this summer?" asked Windsor County State's Attorney David Cahill, who will hold an expungement clinic on Saturday at Vermont Law School. "I anticipate that it's going to be the first of many steps that we take to get people who are entitled to expungement the actual relief that they deserve."


On this week's podcast, one former Vermonter with two possession charges explains what he hopes to gain from a clean slate. Plus, Vermont Legal Aid's Mairead O'Reilly describes how the expungement process works for those looking to apply.


Lottery winners’ suspicious sums

June 1, 2018

A VTDigger investigation published in April revealed a pattern of unlikely lottery wins by retailers and their relatives. Total payoffs for some individuals have reached into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Collectively, at least 117 retailers won nearly $1.8 million.

For reporter Katy Savage, tracking down those winners didn't come easily. The Vermont Lottery Commission would name the towns, but not the stores, where prizewinners purchased their tickets. So Savage took to the phone, calling multiple lottery outlets near the locations of major claims, and connecting those wins to retailers.

Eventually, a second set of data, along with relationship mapping from genealogy websites, allowed her to confirm what she'd already determined: that dozens of Vermont Lottery winners were clocking statistically improbable sums.

The results led to an immediate response from the state. Gov. Phil Scott tasked Danny Rachek, the director of the Vermont Lottery, with reviewing the system's integrity. Scott told VTDigger this week that he's reviewed an initial version of Rachek's report.

"Are there improvements we could make? I believe there are," Scott said. But he said the findings did not reveal apparent wrongdoing. Meanwhile, legislators are calling for a separate investigation under a new, proposed department that would manage both liquor and lottery sales.

On this week's podcast, Katy Savage talks about the year-long process of determining when lottery winners were using more than luck.


“A lethal combination” in the Lumumba homicide

May 25, 2018

The apparent murder of Anako Lumumba, a 33-year-old South Burlington nurse who was allegedly killed by her boyfriend Leroy Headley, has set off an interstate manhunt. It's also renewed a statewide conversation about firearms and domestic violence.

Lumumba had sought two relief-from-abuse orders against Headley in 2017. But both were vacated before being finalized, limiting law enforcement's ability to intervene.

Auburn Watersong, the policy director at the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, calls guns in households experiencing domestic violence "a lethal combination."

Lawmakers worked to address the issue this session with H.422, a bill that allows law enforcement to seize guns during domestic violence citations. But that law does not address limitations with the relief-from-abuse order process that advocates say leave gaps for abuse.

On this week's podcast, Watersong describes the challenges of addressing the chronic problem of domestic violence. Plus, South Burlington Police Chief Trevor Whipple discusses the ongoing search for Leroy Headley.


$5.8 billion in 15 minutes

May 18, 2018

Before adjourning last weekend, the Vermont Legislature passed a budget for the 2019 fiscal year. Gov. Phil Scott says he’ll veto it over a disagreement about the use of one-time money, but the general framework is not likely to change. And it provides the answer to an obvious question: How does the state spend its money?

On this week's podcast, learn about every major spending category in Vermont's $5.8 billion blueprint, from administering the broad-ranging Agency of Human Services to pricing road salt for winter weather. And to illustrate how those dollars are divided, this episode is split up just like the state budget: the more money in a spending category, the longer you'll hear about it.

Legislative Chief Fiscal Officer Steven Klein and Senate Appropriations Chair Jane Kitchel describe where the state's major agencies are putting their pennies. VTDigger's Mike Faher reveals how this budget sets the stage for major changes to mental health services. Agency of Education CFO Emily Byrne talks about the tension around education funding. Secretary of Transportation Joe Flynn shows how VTrans is more than just snowplows. Plus, VTDigger's Colin Meyn puts the $33 million debate over one-time money in context ahead of next week's special session.