Auditor probing Pearce backs Wilton
Vermont Press Bureau | October 22,2012
Joe Juhasz, the deputy auditor assigned to oversee a probe into Treasurer Beth Pearce’s oversight of the state pension system, made a financial contribution to Wendy Wilton’s campaign last month.
Juhasz on Friday confirmed the donation and said he’s a longtime Republican who’s also written checks this year to Republican candidate for auditor Vince Illuzzi and Republican candidate for governor Randy Brock.
Pearce, the Democratic incumbent, and Wilton, her Republican challenger, have locked horns this fall in what has become one of the more contentious races for statewide office.
Juhasz, who gave $200 to the Wilton campaign on Sept. 13, said his support for the Republican won’t in any way color his inquiry into Pearce’s management.
In a letter to Republican Auditor Tom Salmon earlier this week, Wilton campaign manager Bradford Broyles accused Pearce of “inadequately managing overtime expenses associated with the Retirement System Re-engineering Project.”
Wilton has said that the 3,000 hours racked up by a single employee over the last three fiscal years are of particular concern.
Pearce has said that the overtime expenses were offset by savings from a position she opted to leave vacant. She said her office has come in $500,000 under budget in the two years since she was appointed to the post.
According to a piece by Anne Galloway on the Vermont Digger website, however, Pearce neglected to mention that the overtime costs were being paid for with “special pension funds” not part of the treasurer’s general fund budget.
According to Galloway, special-fund spending under Pearce has increased by about $325,000.
Pearce’s camp said the Wilton allegations are groundless, calling them “election-year politics at its worst”
Juhasz said he’s unconcerned about even the appearance of a conflict of interest as he investigates Wilton’s claims. He said Salmon is aware of his political contributions.
“I said we will do what we always do — send a letter of preliminary review,” Juhasz said. “And then the normal process is to ask some questions so we understand what the issues are.”
While he’s been responsible for overseeing the inquiry, Juhasz said he won’t be part of the five-person management team that decides whether to launch a formal audit based on Pearce’s response.
“I have no way of assessing whether the charges made in the complaint have any validity or not,” Juhasz said. “So the first thing we want to do is educate ourselves about the project and how the costs are allocated.”
Pearce won’t be required to deliver responses to the inquiry until after Nov. 6.
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As part of its annual convention last Tuesday evening, the union representing Vermont’s nurses invited candidates for political office to share with its membership their “health care priorities.”
The Vermont State Nurses Association drew several statewide hopefuls to the event, including Randy Brock, Cassandra Gekas, Bill Sorrell, Jack McMullen and … Steve Kimbell?
Kimbell isn’t running for office, of course. But the commissioner of financial regulation has apparently assumed a role as political surrogate for Peter Shumlin.
“It was after normal working hours and the campaign asked me if I was available and I said yes,” Kimbell said.
Kimbell said he checked with state lawyers first to make sure it’s OK for him to stand in at candidate forums on behalf of his boss.
“Apparently, if you’re a state employee, what you do on your private time in the political world is your own business,” Kimbell said.
Kimbell, former principal at the Statehouse lobbying firm KSE Partners (it was Kimbell Sherman Ellis until he left), is no stranger to politics. And while he has since made the leap to government service, Kimbell says navigating politics remains a key component of his role as one of the administration’s point-people on health care reform.
“This is the true blending of policy and politics,” Kimbell said of his role now. “That’s always been true of health care, of major education finance. I don’t think of one world or the other as bad or good. They’re just different worlds, but they overlap.”
Since assuming his Cabinet-level position in the Shumlin administration, Kimbell said he’s seen political support for single payer strengthen, in spite of efforts by opponents like Randy Brock.
“I know everybody thought that health care reform was going to be a big issue in this campaign,” Kimbell said. “But I don’t think there was much traction to be had, particularly when the U.S. Supreme Court let the air out of the hopes of folks who thought they would strike down the law. What I’m sensing is people are now in the frame of mind of, let’s quit arguing about it, let’s do it.”
After helping shepherd the single-payer law through the Legislature in 2011, will Kimbell be staying on for another two-year tour with Shumlin, assuming the incumbent gets the nod from voters Nov. 6?
“That’s not my call,” Kimbell said. “The governor has been really good about telling people to hang in there and after the election we’ll talk about who will be where.”
But, if he’s asked to, will Kimbell stay on?
“I will certainly think about it long and hard,” Kimbell said. “Then I’ll sit down with my family, and talk about what makes sense.”
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For the first time in a long time, Peter Shumlin is paying to get on TV.
Owing to his role as governor, the first-term incumbent enjoys pretty frequent face time on network television already. Beginning late last week, he complemented that earned media with a $125,000 ad buy that, according to campaign manager Alex MacLean, “delivers a positive message of Gov. Shumlin getting tough things done.”
“They highlight the fact that together with Vermonters, he’s balanced two tough budgets without raising broad-based taxes, created thousands of jobs, and helped Vermont recover from Irene in less time and less money than anyone imagined,” MacLean said last week.
The Brock campaign, meanwhile, last week began airing the last of a three-part ad series aimed at undercutting support for Shumlin. After hitting him on jobs and single payer, Brock’s team this time is trying to label Shumlin as a “tax and spend” Democrat.
Shumlin this fall has been eager to talk about his record on taxes. He recently told members of Associated Industries of Vermont they’d be hard-pressed to find a more fically conservative candidate than himself, R or D.
According to a mass media report filed with the secretary of state, the Brock campaign also spent about $5,000 on a statewide fundraising mailer that will look to use an anti-incumbent message to raise money, something that’s proven difficult of late for the Republican incumbent.