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Maintaining momentum while dealing with the past, AG candidate T.J. Donovan revisits Brattleboro

BRATTLEBORO—Chittenden County State’s Attorney and Attorney General candidate T.J. Donovan has made several appearences in Brattleboro to keep his name before voters who may be accustomed hearing about 15-year incumbent AG Bill Sorrell.

Donovan is running in the Democratic primary on Aug 28 against Sorrell in what many observers see as the most contested race of the season.

“It’s a tough challenge but we’re up for it,” Donovan said on the phone last month as he was driving from Brattleboro back to Chittenden County after a campaign apparence.

The campaign has picked up momentum since his last visited Brattleboro in May, Donovan said.

Donovan has received five endorsements, the two most recent from the Professional Firefighters of Vermont and the Vermont Building and Construction Trades Council.

Donovan said he supports Vermont’s working women and men. He said he wants his work to stand up for workers and the middle class.

With a sigh, Donovan spoke about a past criminal record.

“It’s out there now, there’s nothing I can do about it,” he said.

The expunged criminal charge came to light recently after an anonymous tipster mailed the information to the Burlington weekly Seven Days. The young Donovan got into a punch-up with another man after a night of drinking on Burlington’s Church Street. Donovan broke the man’s tooth.

“I was 18,” he said. “I was young and stupid. I did something I regret.”

The court expunged Donovan’s record 20 years ago, he said.

Donovan agreed to a plea deal that Seven Days reported. He said it included completing 100 hours of community service, receiving an alcohol assessment, and paying $1,000 in restitution.

The experience showed the young man the justice system lacked alternative pathways for giving people a “second chance.”

Donovan said his court-system experience gradually changed him. Immediately, he felt embarrassed and shamed at how his actions affected his family. Eventually, he decided not to allow the fight and arrest define him. In his professional life, Donovan said he decided to give back.

His family had the resources to help him through the court system by hiring a private attorney and setting him back on track. But, he said, not everyone has the same resources.

“I’ve tried to level the playing field,” Donovan said of his work in the legal profession.

The community benefits when wrong-doers are held accountable and repair their relationship with the community, he said.

Summer stumping

Donovan said he is spending the weeks before the Aug. 28 primary by meeting as many people as possible. A summer primary can challenge a campaign, because voters focus elsewhere, he said.

“But it’s an important office, and it’s an important race,” he said.

Although his name recognition has improved, he said, he still has the underdog status against the long-serving Sorrell.

Going forward, Donovan said he will focus on discussing policies he wants to see enacted.

Donovan said he wants to change the state’s stance on criminal investigations to match that of the Federal government.

Vermont law presumes criminal investigations are secret. Donovan would like to shift the law to meet the federal standard, which assumes the details of an investigation are open, unless the court can prove a reason for keeping information under lock and key.

“Vermont Public Records law exempts from disclosure ‘records dealing with the detection and investigation of crime,’ permanently,” Donovan wrote in his plan to make Vermont’s investigations presumptively open.

“The broad exemption prevents adequate public examination and understanding of criminal investigations,” he wrote. “The Legislature should reverse the presumption of secrecy to one of disclosure. Records of criminal investigations should be disclosed where there is no good, specific reason to keep them sealed. Public disclosure will help the public better understand the criminal justice system’s most basic function of government. Public disclosure will also protect against abuses by law enforcement.”

He said he would also establish a new unit within the Attorney General’s office to investigate elder abuse, both physical and financial.

“Transparency is about good government,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #160 (Wednesday, July 11, 2012).

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