Monthly Archives: July 2007

Sen. Leahy goes for the big fish

Summer is supposed to be the slow time in news, especially for us here in Montpelier. But not this week.

This afternoon, Sen. Patrick Leahy’s Senate Judiciary Committee did something that is going to make Democrats and other Vermont liberals lick their lips. He subpoenaed Karl Rove, the White House Deputy Chief of Staff and the man they call "Bush’s brain."

The subpoena is part of the committee’s prob into the firings of a slew of U.S. attorneys last year for alleged political purposes, an act that has been linked to Rove’s political operation within the White House.

"The Bush-Cheney White House continues to place great strains on our constitutional system of checks and balances," Leahy said in a statement.  "Not since the darkest days of the Nixon Administration have we seen efforts to corrupt federal law enforcement for partisan political gain and such efforts to avoid accountability."

The full statement and copies of the actual subpoenas can be found here at Leahy’s Web site.

-Dan Barlow 

Markowitz goes to Washington

While everyone else in the state ponders the news that Legislative leaders plan to tackle gay marriage soon, our secretary of state is in Washington, D.C. testifying before a Senate committee on a new federal election law.

Deb Markowitz, who has overseen Vermont elections for nine years, flew to the nation’s capitol this morning and is expected back in the state this evening.

The bill in question, which is supported by our two senators in D.C., won’t change much in Vermont because we’re way ahead of the game on these things. But there are 49 other states that also elect the president, so there is a reason to pay attention.

Markowitz’s testimony can be read here, for those that are interested.

-Dan Barlow

Hmmm … What could this be about?

This just arrivied in my e-mail box a few minutes ago.

Speaker Gaye Symington and President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin will hold a press conference Wednesday, July 25, on the steps of Burlington’s City Hall at 10:00 AM.  The Legislative leaders will be announcing the creation of a new Commission.

Commission on what? Should be really, really interesting.

-Dan Barlow

Leahy: What is the White House trying to hide?

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was before Sen. Patrick Leahy’s Senate Judiciary Committee again this morning. For the record, this is the third time that the embattled AG has testified before the committee concerning the firing of a slew of U.S. attorneys for allegedly political reasons.

Early reports coming from the hearing indicate that the toughest questions came from the body’s leading Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, the vice-chairman of the committee. But Leahy’s statements, as found on his Senate Web site, seem pretty tough too.

Here’s what Vermont’s senior senator had to say:

Three months ago, when Attorney General Gonzales last appeared before this Committee, I said that the Department of Justice was experiencing a crisis of leadership perhaps unrivaled during its history.  Unfortunately, that crisis has not abated.  Until there is independence, transparency and accountability, it will continue.  The Attorney General has lost the confidence of the Congress and the American people.  Through oversight we hope to restore balance and accountability to the Executive Branch.  The Department of Justice must be restored to be worthy of its name.  It should not be reduced to another political arm of the White House.  The trust and confidence of the American people in federal law enforcement must be restored.

With the Department shrouded in scandal, the Deputy Attorney General has announced his resignation.  The nominee to become Associate Attorney General requested that his nomination be withdrawn rather than testify under oath at a confirmation hearing.  The Attorney General’s chief of staff, the Deputy Attorney General’s chief of staff, the Department’s White House liaison and the White House Political Director have all resigned, as have others.  I would joke that the last one out the door should turn out the lights, but the Department of Justice is too important for that — we need to shine more light there, not less. 

The investigation into the firing for partisan purposes of United States Attorneys, who had been appointed by this President, along with an ever-growing series of controversies and scandals have revealed an Administration driven by a vision of an all-powerful Executive over our constitutional system of checks and balances, that values loyalty over judgment, secrecy over openness, and ideology over competence.

The accumulated and essentially uncontroverted evidence is that political considerations factored into the unprecedented firing of at least nine United States Attorneys last year.  Testimony and documents show that the list was compiled based on input from the highest political ranks in the White House, that senior officials were apparently focused on the political impact of federal prosecutions, on whether federal prosecutors were doing enough to bring partisan voter fraud and corruption cases, and that the reasons given for these firings were contrived as part of a cover up.

What the White House stonewalling is preventing is conclusive evidence of who made the decisions to fire these federal prosecutors.  We know from the testimony that it was not the President.  Everyone who has testified has said that he was not involved.  None of the senior officials at the Department of Justice could testify how people were added to the list or the real reasons that people were included among the federal prosecutors to be replaced.  Indeed, the evidence we have been able to collect points to Karl Rove and the political operatives at the White House.  The stonewalling by the White House raises the question: What is it that the White House is so desperate to hide? 

The White House has asserted blanket claims of executive privilege, despite officials’ contentions that the President was not involved.  They refuse to provide a factual basis for their blanket claims, have instructed former White House officials not to testify about what they know, and then instructed Harriet Miers to refuse even to appear as required by a House Judiciary Committee subpoena.  Now, anonymous officials are claiming that the statutory mechanism to test White House assertions of Executive privilege no longer governs.  In essence this White House asserts that its claim of privilege is the final word, that Congress may not review it, and that no court can review it.  Here, again, this White House claims to be above the law.

My oath, unlike those who have apparently sworn their allegiance to this President, is to the United States Constitution.  I believe in checks and balances and in the rule of law. 

Despite the stonewalling and obstruction, we have learned that Todd Graves, U.S. Attorney in the Western District of Missouri was fired after he expressed reservations about a lawsuit that would have stripped many African-American voters from the rolls in Missouri.  When the Attorney General replaced Mr. Graves with Bradley Schlozman, the person pushing the lawsuit, that case was filed and ultimately thrown out of court. Once in place in Missouri though, Mr. Schlozman also brought indictments on the eve of a closely contested election, despite the Justice Department policy not to do so.  This is what happens when a responsible prosecutor is replaced by a “loyal Bushie” for partisan, political purposes.

Mr. Schlozman also bragged about hiring ideological soulmates.  Monica Goodling likewise admitted “crossing the line” when she used a political litmus test for career prosecutors and immigration judges.  Rather than keep federal law enforcement above politics, this Administration is more intent on placing its actions above the law.

The Attorney General admitted recently in a video for Justice employees that injecting politics into the Department’s hiring is unacceptable.  But is he committed to corrective action and routing out the partisanship in federal law enforcement?  His lack of independence and tendency to act as if he were the President’s lawyer rather than the Attorney General of the United States makes that doubtful.  From the infamous torture memo, to Mr. Gonzales’ attempt to prevail on a hospitalized Attorney General Ashcroft to certify an illegal eavesdropping program, to the recent opinion seeking to justify Harriet Miers’ contemptuous refusal to appear before the House Judiciary Committee, the Justice Department has been reduced to the role of enabler for this Administration. What we need instead is genuine accountability and real independence.

We learned earlier this year of systematic misuse and abuse of National Security Letters, a powerful tool for the Government to obtain personal information without the approval of a court or prosecutor.  The Attorney General has said he had no inkling of these or other problems with vastly expanded investigative powers.  Now we know otherwise.  Recent documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits and reported in The Washington Post indicate that the Attorney General was receiving reports in 2005 and 2006 of violations in connection with the PATRIOT Act and abuses of National Security Letters.  Yet, when the Attorney General testified under oath before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in April 2005, he said that “[t]he track record established over the past three years has demonstrated the effectiveness of the safeguards of civil liberties put in place when the Act was passed.”  Earlier this month, in responses to written questions I sent to the Attorney General about when he first learned of problems with National Security Letters, he once again failed to mention these reports of problems.

Only with the openness and honesty that brings true accountability will the Department begin to move forward and correct the problems of the last few years.  Instead, we have leadership at the Department of Justice whose expressions of concern and admissions that mistakes were made only follow public revelations and amount to regrets that their excesses were uncovered.

In the wake of growing reports of abuses of National Security Letters, the Attorney General announced a new internal program.  This supposed self-examination, with no involvement by the courts, no report to Congress, and no other outside check, essentially translates to “trust us.”  With a history of civil liberties abuses and cover-ups, this Administration has squandered our trust.  Earlier internal reviews, like the Intelligence Oversight Board and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board have been ineffective and inactive, failing to take action on the violations reported to them.  Only with a real check from outside of the Executive branch can we have any confidence that abuses will be curbed and balance restored.

A tragic dimension of the ongoing crisis of leadership at the Justice Department is the undermining of good people and the crucial work that it does. Thousands of honest, hard-working prosecutors, agents, and other civil servants labor every day to detect and prevent crime, uncover corruption, promote equality and justice, and keep us safe from terrorism.  Sadly, prosecutions will now be questioned as politically-motivated and evidence will be suspected of having been obtained in violation of laws and civil liberties.  Once the government shows a disregard for the independence of the justice system and the rule of law, it is very hard to restore the people’s faith.  This Committee will do its best to try to restore independence, accountability, and commitment to the rule of law to the operations of the Justice Department.

-Dan Barlow

Welch protest called off. Really.

Looks like the Vermont impeachment supporters have decided not to descend on U.S. Rep. Peter Welch’s Burlington office Monday.

But they promise to do so later on … when the congressman may actually be there.

-Dan Barlow

Another protest against Welch?

Maybe. But maybe not.

Word got around Thursday that Vermont impeachment supporters were considering staging a "takeover" of U.S. Rep. Peter Welch’s Burlington office on Monday.

On that same day, anti-war mom Cindy Sheehan (I thought she retired from active protests?) is scheduled to do the same at the Washington, D.C. office of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan.

Both groups plan to pressure the congressmen on impeaching President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Both men, who are clearly not fans of the Bush administration, are reluctant to support the impeachment option.

This afternoon I called one of the prominent members of Vermont’s impeachment movement to double-check the place and time on the protest. This contact seemed surprised by my call. They told me that they were strongly considering a protest, but backed off in recent days to first see how Sheehan’s protest went.

But at least one political blog in the state had already announced the protest, I told the contact.

"Hmmm … maybe we’ll have to reconsider," the contact said.

"Well, let me know if you decide to, okay?" I told them.

So, maybe. Or maybe not.

-Dan Barlow

Why can’t we say the “F” word?

When I first started reading the stories about the Iraq debate in the U.S. Senate I was very confused.

Why are all these news organizations saying the Democrats need 60 votes to pass a withdrawal bill? Don’t they remember that 51 votes is considered a majority?

And then a Washington, D.C. contact clued me in. The Senate Republicans are threatening a … filibuster.

But it would be hard to know that from reading many of the news stories surrounding the debate, especially the ones that have been written over the past two days. The F word is rarely used. Some of them don’t even mention it at all. One article I read called it a "procedural tool."

The worst offender seemed to Vermont’s good friends at FOX News. Their headline today was, "Lawmakers vote 52-47 to reject plan to bring troops home by early next year." That is exactly the opposite of what happened.

Now, every minority party in the U.S. Congress has the right to filibuster. It’s a useful tool that Republicans and Democrats have used to shift the balance of power in the chambers.

But we call a spade a spade, right?

So let’s call a filibuster a filibuster, okay?

-Dan Barlow 

“It’s about time.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy may have issued his thoughts on the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson several hours after his colleagues, but his tone is notably stronger.

"It’s about time," Leahy said. "His tenure has been marked by gross low-balling of resources needed to care for returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the scandal over the loss of the personal data of tens of millions of veterans, and concerns about veterans health care sparked by the Walter Reed scandal."

"Veterans are overdue for new leadership and a clean slate," Leahy continued. "Repairing and improving services to the growing ranks of the nation’s veterans once again needs to be job one. Instead, Secretary Nicholson – like some others in the Cabinet – sometimes has seemed to be more motivated to serve the political interests of the White House."

C’mon, Sen. Leahy, tell us how you really feel.

-Dan Barlow

Sanders, Welch respond to VA head’s resignation

Jim Nicholson, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, stepped down from his job Tuesday, several months after the discovery of poor conditions at Walter Reed Medical Center highlighted the growing needs of veterans.

Two members of Vermont’s congressional delegation took the opportunity to ask President Bush to appoint a strong candidate to steer the VA as the country continues fighting two wars and soldiers cope with the physical and emotional fallout of battle.

"Veterans in this country and their families need an advocate, not an adversary," said Sen. Bernard Sanders, who as a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will be in a position to closely scrutinize Nicholson’s replacement. "They need someone committed to ending the waiting lines for health care and other services in Vermont and across the country, someone committed to opening the doors of the VA to all veterans, and someone who will make sure that service members returning from combat and their families get the care they deserve."

Rep. Peter Welch, who as a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was at the center of uncovering the disastrous conditions at Walter Reed, had a similar sentiment.

"The next VA Secretary should have the commitment, experience, and capability necessary to reduce the burdensome and unacceptable backlogs veterans are experiencing today," Welch said. "He or she should assure soldiers returning from our current international conflicts have the care and treatment they need, including seamless transition from combat into the VA system."

Nicholson always seemed like an odd choice to head the VA, especially during a time of war. A Vietnam veteran and graduate of West Point, N.Y., Nicholson had mostly worked as a lawyer and real estate developer before assuming various appointed positions with the Republican Party.

Before taking the VA job in 2005, Nicholson worked as the chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1997 up to President Bush’s first election. After that, he got a job as the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

It should be noted that Walter Reed is operated by the U.S. Department of Defense and not the VA, although the poor treatment of soldiers did place some light on the burdens that veterans face within that other bureaucracy.

While I toured the VA facility in White River Junction a few months ago, I noticed a portrait of Nicholson next to President Bush’s official White House picture hanging in the lobby of the facility. I asked my tour guide who he was and received a gushing and flattering description of the man.

Several others affiliated with the VA also gave nice descriptions of the man.

Then again, he was their boss.

-Dan Barlow

No more nudes please

I had to smile when I saw John Curran’s story on Brattleboro’s nude problem on the front page of the Times Argus this morning.

You see, I also saw that naked 68-year-old man walking down Main Street.

Earlier this month, my girlfriend and I spent a Friday afternoon and evening in the lovely southern Vermont town for her birthday. And the first thing we saw when pulled onto Main Street was that elderly man, wearing nothing more than a fanny pack and a pair of sneakers, walking past the American Legion building.

This was the second time that I had returned to Brattleboro since moving to Montpelier that I saw an older man walking around nude. During the four years I lived in Brattleboro, I never once saw a naked person walking around the town (It is common to find naked people at the swimming holes though).

Unfortunately, I never got an interview with the mysterious nude walker. But everyone in town was talking about him that day. It seems he spent the afternoon strolling up and down and up Main Street.

Some people may scoff at Brattleboro – which rightfully has a reputation as one of Vermont’s hippie kingdoms – passing a local ordinance banning nudity in public areas. And last year, when a few teenagers decided to get some attention by disrobing downtown, I did too.

But it seems like Brattleboro is getting another reputation and that is of a lawless town where clothes are optional.

You see, during our trip this month to Brattleboro my girlfriend and I also gleefully shopped. I found a rare book I needed for one dollar at one of the thrift stores. We drank organic shakes from the co-op. For dinner we ate at the Top of the Hill Grille on Putney Road, an eatery that resembles the ewok village from "Return of the Jedi."

After dinner we stumbled upon a mass pillow fight in the Harmony Parking Lot, the spot that was notorious last year for the naked kids. Pillow feathers covered the lot and stuck to the ground, still wet from that day’s rain.

Finally, we drank a few beers with friends at Metropolis, the town’s downtown wine bar, while watching two contortionists perform. As we were leaving, a DJ was setting up his equipment for a night of dancing.

These are the things that I think of when I think of Brattleboro.

Unfortunately, they may soon be overshadowed by a different reputation.

-Dan Barlow

Douglas: Democrats are losers in veto session

To most political observers, the winner yesterday in the legislative veto session was Gov. James Douglas.

Now, several people on the losing side of the energy bill and campaign finance reform issues yesterday have suggested that there may be some hidden wins for them.

A large crowd energized by concerns over global warming turned out to the Statehouse to support overturning the veto. And some Democrats believe that Douglas’ firm opposition to many parts of the energy bill could turn into a campaign issue in the 2008 race.

But if any of those things are true, Douglas didn’t show any concern during his weekly press conference Thursday.

"I think the big losers yesterday were the Democrats," Douglas said when asked about potential political fallout from his vetos.

He went on to criticize the Democrats for spending $60,000 (the cost estimate to run the Vermont Legislature for one day) to host the veto session during a time when most Vermonters are "thinking about Homer Simpson and Harry Potter."

"They spent $60,000 of the taxpayer’s money to hold a special day in the legislature to not overturn my vetos," Douglas said.

Only time – and the voters – will be able to tell who is right.

-Dan Barlow

One vote short

Leaders in the Vermont House were a single vote short today to overturn the governor’s veto of the campaign finance reform bill.

One Democrat, Rep. George Allard of St. Albans, broke ranks and voted for sustaining the veto, but he’s been against the bill for quite some time, according to House members. No surprise there. Privately, Democrats did note that several key members were absent for the veto session, which could have made the difference here.

Depending on the outcome of the new energy bill that is being debated in the Vermont Senate right now, Gov. James Douglas could walk away from this post-veto legislative session looking like a winner. But the afternoon is early.

-Dan Barlow

Vermont House honors Springfield, Vt.

Legislators in the Vermont House took a few minutes before the start of the campaign finance reform veto debate Wednesday to approve a resolution congratulating Springfield, Vt. for officially becoming the "home" of the cartoon Simpsons family.

In case you missed it, yesterday the Windsor County town of 9,000 shocked EVERYONE by winning the right to premiere The Simpsons movie on July 21.

The House’s resolution Wednesday was short in length but heavy with pride. Earlier this morning, one state senator quipped that he wanted to recognize Vermont’s newest yellow family, The Simpsons. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Senate tackles its own Springfield resolution soon.

-Dan Barlow

P.S. The House sustained Gov. James Douglas’ veto of the energy bill shortly after noontime. But I assumed everyone out there already knew that.

Senate overrides campaign finance reform veto

Within 20 minutes of convening Wednesday morning, Vermont Senators had easily overcome Gov. James Douglas’ veto of the new campaign finance reform and set the stage for the larger battle in that small body – the controversial energy bill, H.520.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Putney, said Vermonters are worried that the influx of money flooding into congressional and U.S. Senate races will trickle down to the state races.

"My political hero, George Aiken, spent, I believe, in his last U.S. Senate campaign, $13.28," Shumlin said. "Last year we saw the two major campaigns in the U.S. Senate race spend a combined $12 million."

Sen. George Coppenrath, R-Caledonia, a member of the Senate Government Operations Committee who has consistently voted against the measure, announced Wednesday that he would float an alternative proposal when the Legislature comes back for the second half of the session in early 2008.

Coppenrath said the bill being debated is unnecessary because Vermont does not have a problem with money influencing elections. He added that setting contribution limits was an assault on free speech.

"The only reasonable control is more reporting of contributions," he said. "Then let the press do its job and report those facts to the public."

But Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham, the chair of the Government Operations Committee, said Coppenrath missed about one week of testimony earlier this year that would have addressed all of his concerns.

"We did hear that there is a problem in Vermont," White said.

The bill next goes to the Vermont House – which is now embroiled in the beginning stages of the massive debate surrounding the energy bill – where its fate is less than certain than it was in the Senate.

-Dan Barlow 

We won!

Our little Windsor County town of Springfield, Vt. – population 9,000 – has just won the right to host the premiere of "The Simpsons" movie.

For about two years I worked out of the Rutland Herald’s Southern Vermont Bureau office in downtown Springfield. Never once did I imagine that the quirky streets of that town would muster up the energy to attract the attention of "The Simpsons" enterprise.

Gov. James Douglas, who noted today in a Herald story that he has only seen the show a few times, quipped in a statement this afternoon that the 13 other Springfields that lost out, shouldn’t "have a cow, man!"

Congratulations Springfield! Congratulations Vermont!

-Dan Barlow