When one politician scolds another politician for “playing politics,” it’s a safe bet that: a.) the politician getting scolded is on to something; and b.) it’s time to play politics. Tarnished as their reputation may be, politics provide the best forum for debating issues so that voters may ultimately render judgment — both on the issues and those who play politics.
The politician who got scolded last week was Scott Milne, the Pomfret Republican who nearly dethroned Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2014 and is considering challenging Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Democrat who is the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate.
Leahy rebuked Milne for suggesting that he and Gov. Peter Shumlin should disclose whatever documentary record exists — including emails, meeting notes and call logs — that might shed light on their relationship with the developers involved in the Jay Peak-Burke Mountain fiasco.
Fiasco is a polite word for something that falls somewhere between tragedy and fraud — the final determination will be made by regulators and perhaps the courts. Promising to transform Vermont’s impoverished Northeast Kingdom, developers Bill Stenger and Ariel Quiros proposed expanding two ski resorts and building hotels and a biotech research operation — a $600 million undertaking that would bring thousands of jobs to the remote region. Much of the financing came via the federal government’s EB-5 program, which offers U.S. residency to foreign investors willing to put up $500,000 each.
Now that the whole thing has imploded — the Securities and Exchange Commission has described it as a massive Ponzi-like scheme in which as much as $50 million ended up in Quiros’ pockets — legitimate questions have been raised about the enthusiastic support the developers received from the state’s leaders. Shumlin and Leahy weren’t the only politicians who promoted the development, but they were certainly among the most enthusiastic — at press conferences, on trade missions and at various forums. They were equally committed to throwing their weight behind the notion that the project should be financed via the EB-5 program — an arrangement that offends the principles of sound economics (worthy projects attract investors on their own merits) and fair-minded immigration policy (money shouldn’t determine one’s place in line).
Given all that, Milne’s call for Leahy and Shumlin to release all communications with the developers is perfectly reasonable. We already know that the developers contributed thousands to the political campaigns of Leahy and Shumlin. Access to whatever communications occurred between the developers and their champions might provide context to those contributions, or at the very least shed light on how the two became so enamored of what turned out to be a disaster for the investors and the people of the Northeast Kingdom.
We are particularly struck by Leahy’s response to Milne’s position because it is particularly disingenuous.
“I’m outraged at what happened up there,” Leahy was quoted by VTDigger as saying at a press conference. “I’m glad that the SEC and the Justice Department are involved. I know all the people, Republicans and Democrats, are trying not to make a political thing about it.”
He also said he was “sorry that Mr. Milne wants to make politics out of what’s a very sad situation.”
To point out the obvious, when a state’s most powerful and prominent politicians act as enablers for a project that turns out to be not just a bad idea but possibly a fraudulent one, they have some explaining to do. And because their roles as chief promoters came by way of their elected offices, any examination of the parts they played is unavoidably a political matter, as it should be. Those politicians should be bending over backward to do whatever needs to be done to trace the genesis and evolution of this idea gone terribly wrong — not just by way of clearing their good names but also to provide whatever assistance they can in preventing something similar from happening again.
To make matters worse, Leahy also invoked “privacy” considerations — a legitimate concern and one that has zero relevance in this matter. “We don’t release emails,” Leahy said. “I’ve been the privacy champion in the Senate. We get emails from battered spouses, people with adoption, immigration problems. I tell everybody, everybody with emails, ‘I will keep your emails private.’”
Whether battered spouses writing a U.S. senator have a reasonable claim of confidentiality is a question we’ll leave for another day. The question of whether influential developers writing an elected official about public business — a massive development drawing support from the federal government — have any expectation of privacy is a question we’ll take up now.
Absolutely not. The senator knows that, and the more he pretends to not know it, the more we’d like to see those communications.
- Vermont EB5 Regional Center
- Jay Peak - Q Burke Mountain Resort, Hotel and Conference Center L.P.
- UNITED STATES SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION
- Ariel Quiros
- Bill Stenger
- Patrick Leahy
- Peter Shumlin
- State of Vermont vs Bill Stenger & Ariel Quiros
- UNITED STATES SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION vs Ariel Quiros & Bill Stenger
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