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Brandon Batham is accused of embezzling more than $18,000 from the Vermont Democratic Party, where he served as operations director. Batham served as chair of the Windham County Democratic Party in 2015, when this photo was taken.

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Democrats weigh in on embezzlement

At meeting, county party leaders back away from a call for new state leadership

John Walters writes about Vermont politics at The Vermont Political Observer, where this piece first appeared. The blog offers “[a]nalysis and observation of Vermont politics from a liberal viewpoint.”

BRATTLEBORO—At a meeting Monday, the Windham County Democratic Committee quickly disposed of a resolution calling for new leadership in the state party.

Instead, the panel approved the drafting of a letter expressing concern over an alleged embezzlement of party funds and appreciation for actions taken by party leaders to prevent any recurrence.

The resolution was drafted by county party chair John Hagen after consultation with other officers in the organization. The meeting was attended by 23 party members, including almost every Democratic lawmaker from Windham County.

If there had been any momentum in favor of the resolution, the air exited the balloon when Hagen told the meeting that, about an hour before the meeting began, he had received an email from state party chair Terje Anderson providing a full history of the embezzlement case and outlining new steps the party was taking in response.

In the email, Hagen said, Anderson “addresses every part of the resolution.”

Nice timing, that. If Anderson sought to influence the proceedings with a last-ditch plea, it’s fair to say he succeeded.

* * *

The resolution was in response to alleged embezzlement of more than $18,000 in state party funds by former staffer Brandon Batham.

The Vermont Democratic Party has requested a criminal investigation by the Montpelier Police Department and is conducting an audit going back three years to be sure that no more irregularities are hiding in the weeds.

The resolution called for a new slate of state party officers to be presented at the party’s reorganization meeting on Nov. 16, citing concerns about management oversight and the scandal’s potential effect on fundraising.

No one spoke in favor of the resolution, although several attendees had been involved in creating it.

Most were mollified by Anderson’s late email — even though they had yet to actually see it.

“I wasn’t expecting the resolution to pass,” said Hagen after the meeting. “The intent was to throw a rock in the water and see what came up to the surface.”

* * *

That rock produced a tidal wave of retreat from the resolution. The most vociferous opponent was Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, who characterized party leaders as “a bunch of volunteers doing the best they can,” she said.

“In my mind, they have revised and updated their procedures. This resolution just fuels the flames,” White said, adding that she advocated putting the affair behind them and turning the party’s attention on the 2020 election campaign.

Committee member Andy Burrows of Guilford noted that before Batham was hired on party staff, he had been chair of the Windham Democrats — and, in his view, had not performed well.

“We worked with him for a long time,” Burrows said, characterizing him as “a shifty sort of guy.”

“We should have [told the state party that] Batham was not appropriate for the party job,” he said.

Afterward, Burrows elaborated on his statement, noting that he questioned Batham’s work ethic, not his probity.

“He volunteered for many tasks, but he did very little,” Burrows said of Batham. “We wouldn’t have recommended him. And [the party] didn’t ask.”

Which ought to raise questions about the thoroughness of the Vermont Democratic Party’s hiring process in addition to its financial oversight. But I digress.

Brenda Siegel, a 2016 gubernatorial candidate, spoke against the resolution. “When embezzlement happens, it’s not always the fault of leadership,” she said. Rather than suggesting a new slate, she advised allowing the reorganization process to play out.

Several committee members expressed a desire to meet with Anderson directly before considering the resolution.

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, moved to table the resolution. “We’re nowhere near consensus,” he said.

White even objected to tabling; she wanted the county committee to immediately drop the matter.

“We should send a nice letter saying we appreciate the work being done on new procedures,” White said. “We shouldn’t judge Brandon. I don’t know what’s going on with him. I don’t think he’s a bad guy.”

“We should send a thoughtful letter stating that we’re glad to hear they’re working on new procedures, and asking them to come down and talk to us about it,” said Burrows.

White objected to that as well, saying she didn’t want to take the time for more talk.

“We should thank [leadership] for taking this seriously, and let the reorganization process go ahead,” she said.

At that point, committee members deferred to White. Her resolution, calling for a thankful letter and nothing more, was approved on a unanimous voice vote.

* * *

Members of the Windham County committee clearly felt uncomfortable expressing any real questions about party leadership, especially on the eve of the 2020 election season. But this is probably not the end of Anderson’s troubles.

Many committee members expect robust debate at the VDP’s state committee meeting on Sept. 21. Hagen noted that he had talked with other county chairs and found that many were still actively concerned about the Batham case and its effect on fundraising.

And even in the absence of an actual call for change in leadership, the incumbent officeholders are likely to face sharp questions — at the very least — at the reorganization meeting on Nov. 16.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #527 (Wednesday, September 11, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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