Candidate Q & A: Attorney General Race
Q: Beyond prosecuting offenders, what role should the attorney general play in curbing the state’s narcotics problem?
Ed Stanak: The term “narcotics” has a specific definition under Vermont law and means “opium, coca leaves, pethidine and opiates…”.
While the attorney general has powers and duties comparable to state’s attorneys in the prosecution of criminal narcotics violations, such prosecutions should be left to the state’s attorneys unless conflicts of interest or other unusual circumstances arise. The role of the attorney general therefore should be one of assessing the effectiveness of existing policies and statutes in order to determine how to best attain a just outcome on behalf of the public interest.
This requires a substantial realignment of the so-called 40-year-old “war on drugs” — a system involving enormous expenditures of public funds and a huge increase in the number of Vermonters subject to the corrections system. The result has not been productive. The attorney general should prepare a comprehensive assessment for the consideration of the legislature. An immediate priority must be stopping the illicit flow of drugs into our communities from pharmaceutical corporations licensed by the government. These drugs are prescribed by physicians and encouraged by health insurance providers to be marketed in large quantities.
A priority would be reallocating law enforcement resources on narcotics rather than on cannabis products, which should be legalized and regulated as are alcohol products. Drug use by many young people is essentially an economic justice issue. Given access to skill training programs and employment opportunities, the use of narcotics and related crimes against persons and property will diminish. The attorney general should seek just outcomes for all members of the Vermont community. Although convictions for violations of existing criminal provisions is a responsibility, a larger obligation is to lead as an advocate for change benefiting all and resulting in more prudent uses of public revenues.
Bill Sorrell: Beyond the prosecution of offenders, the attorney general should use the “bully pulpit” of the office to advise the general public and opinion makers of the extent of the problem, the need for more resources for treatment and to warn of the addictive qualities of the street drugs, prescription medicines subject to abuse and today’s synthetic “designer drugs.”
I have alerted health care providers to the problems of drug diversion by employees in health care facilities. As part of this effort, my office created and has widely distributed the training video “Drug Diversion in Vermont: When Healing Hands Harm.”
I, personally, and members of my staff have presented at trainings and workshops for various groups on drug abuse issues, including two recent programs for prescribers focusing on the efforts of some individuals to “doctor shop” in order to obtain multiple prescriptions for addictive pain medications.
Collaboration is key to more effectively combating drug abuse. Given the many hats worn by the attorney general, the office should continue to be involved in various collaboration efforts.
Jack McMullen: If elected, I would convene a statewide task force comprised of the attorney general, the state’s attorneys, law enforcement, mayors and selectmen, mental health professionals, and members of the judiciary, to hammer out a uniform statewide policy for dealing with drug-related crime. As part of the work of the task force, I envision defining the boundaries between the three types of criminals involved in drug-related crime.
The three categories are: hard core criminals (violent criminals, repeat offenders, drug dealers, and out of state offenders), offenders involved in their first crime with no associated violence (burglaries, house breaks), youthful offenders who are caught with small amounts of drugs for personal use. The first group would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law and gotten off our streets. The second group would be sent to a court diversion program to interact with their victims, make restitution, and have their criminal record expunged if they successfully complete the program. The third group would bypass the courts and criminal system and be sent straight to treatment.
Another job of the task force would be to recommend court diversion and treatment programs across the state not just in the selected places that offer them now. In addition, I envision a recommendation for a gradual shift of resources from prisons toward diversion and treatment as the statewide policy begins to gain traction.
The purpose of the approach to the second and third categories would be to set nonviolent offenders on a path to productive citizenship which follow-up studies show would benefit society far more than the offender who, of course, would also benefit.
Who had the biggest impact on your political career? What did you learn from them? And how do those lessons show in your work today?
Jack McMullen: Admiral Rickover. He was a Russian Jewish immigrant to the United States at about age 10 in 1910. He left the Tsar’s Russia with his family to escape the manifest discrimination and persecution Jews suffered as a matter of state policy in those days. Despite that background, the Admiral was nominated to attend the Naval Academy and rose, by dint of merit and his accomplishments, to become a four-star officer in his adopted country. He was both a Renaissance man and a grateful patriot in spite of sometimes experiencing discrimination here in the U.S. (albeit a much milder form than in Russia). I learned from the Admiral how to identify what is important in a challenging situation and develop a clear action plan to resolve things in the presence of great uncertainty. I also admired the Admiral’s belief in merit as the sole criterion for selecting his staff. He didn’t care if you were from “Mars” (as a metaphor for someone not naturally aware of societal norms). If you could do the job to his standards, he would hire you and judge you on your performance.
William Sorrell: I aspire to follow the lead of my mother, the late Senator Esther Sorrell. Her fundamental concern for the well-being of Vermonters and her respect for the weighty responsibility of holding public office guide me in my role of being Vermont’s attorney general. Her intelligence, wisdom, energy and integrity are qualities to which I aspire. Every day I try to bring these qualities to the office of attorney general. My record of achievement of over fifteen years of fighting on behalf of Vermont and Vermonters is a testament to her example.
Ed Stanak: My father was involved in the reform wing of the Democratic party in Jersey City, N.J., a city controlled by “machine politics.” He took me to meetings at the neighborhood reform “clubhouse,” where I listened to the ethnic mix of Italians, Greeks, Irish and others who came together for the common good. One evening before an election all four tires on his car were flattened. The next morning we gathered our signs and went to the polls for the reform candidates. From my dad, I acquired the essentials of political involvement.
While a freshman in college I worked on the campaign of Robert Kennedy for president. I had just left his New York City headquarters when the news of his assassination was broadcast. From Kennedy I learned how passion can be transformed into political action.
I arrived in Marshfield in the summer of 1973 and my neighbor was Wallace Whitcomb, retired sergeant of arms for the Statehouse. Over the years, Wallace taught me the fundamentals of politics in the Green Mountains.
I first met Bernie Sanders in 1979. Over the years I helped with his campaigns. I opposed his first run for congress. My late buddy Stewart Meacham (one of the founders of Vermont’s food coops) and I thought that by opposing Bernie we’d get him to run again for governor. Bernie taught me political perseverance and reconciliation.
Bernadette Devlin McAliskey is a civil rights activist and former legislator from Northern Ireland. She and her husband were the victims of an attempted assassination in 1981 and were shot in front of their children. Bernadette spoke at the Barre Opera House in the late 1980s and stayed at our home. Bernadette instilled in me a sense of political courage despite personal risk.
If you could unilaterally impose one single change to Vermont criminal statutes, what would it be?
Sorrell: I would extend the current six years statute of limitations for manslaughter cases arising from infant abuse deaths.
McMullen: To establish a statewide drug crime policy along the lines outlined in Question 1, so that no matter where a drug crime was committed in our state, it would be treated the same way given the nature of the offense, the risk posed by the offender, and which of the three categories noted he or she fell into.
Stanak: There are actions and behaviors by individuals which are unacceptable and even harmful to members of the community but may not meet the basic legal test of “mens rea” – the guilty mind, knowledge that the act is wrong. One in three of all inmates in the Vermont correctional system have been diagnosed with mental illnesses. Three out of five female inmates have such illnesses. Four out of five inmates have some level of substance addiction. These characteristics are the realities of the Vermont prison system, which now devours more public funds than we spend on college education.
This downward spiral, both in terms of costs to taxpayers and society at large due to outcomes such as recidivism, will worsen unless steps are taken to distinguish criminal acts from acts resulting from illness and addiction. Currently, some state’s attorneys in Vermont recognize the issues at hand and have successfully implemented diagnostic and treatment alternatives to criminal prosecution. Similarly, there are specialized “drug courts” and “mental health courts” in a few counties.
As encouraging as these steps are, they are a fragmented approach to statewide problems. A unilateral change to the criminal justice system would be to implement such programs on a uniform statewide basis. A standardized pre-trial process in all counties identifying individuals with mental illness and/or addiction problems would divert a significant number of people from the criminal justice system into treatment programs with a resulting decrease in costs and, hopefully, a decline in repeat offenses..
Should Vermont Yankee continue to operate? If yes, why? In not, what specific actions will you undertake to ensure it doesn’t?
Stanak: The operation of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is a danger to the health and economic well being of Vermonters. The plant must be closed. This has been the position of candidate Stanak since 1979 when he wrote a brief to the Vermont Supreme Court on behalf of six Vermonters who sought to shut down the plant.
The current lawsuit regarding enactments by the Vermont legislature to curtail plant operation, and pending before the federal 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, has minimal likelihood of success in ending the operation of the plant because of the factual record in that case and the legal principle of federal preemption. Drawing upon experience as an administrator of Vermont’s environmental laws, candidate Stanak believes that the pending application by Entergy Inc., to the Agency of Natural Resources seeking renewal of its permit to discharge hundreds of millions of gallons of heated water into the Connecticut River is the best means to cease operation of the plant. The state has clear jurisdiction over discharges. The attorney general must work closely with the Agency secretary to ensure a thorough review of the application for the continued discharge. Evidence will demonstrate that the characteristics of this discharge do not comply with Vermont’s water quality standards and other applicable regulatory standards. Appellate litigation resulting from a denial of the discharge permit renewal would then be the means to successfully close the plant.
An additional comment is necessary. Hundreds of workers are employed at the plant and their future economic wellbeing must be considered in the closure of the plant. To this end, steps must be taken to increase the plant’s decommissioning funds in order to include adequate resources for the retraining of the displaced workers.
McMullen: The attorney general’s shop should not be a policy shop but rather a law enforcement operation. The job of shutting down Vermont Yankee is a policy question properly left to elected legislators and the governor. Our present governing party has strongly indicated its desire to shut the plant down. If they can find a constitutional way to do that, I would defend the law created to put the policy into effect at the trial level and on appeal should that be necessary independent of my personal views on the suitability of closing or leaving open the plant. In my judgment, the current appeal from Judge Murtha’s ruling in the Entergy lawsuit has a very low probability of success. Rather than gambling the $4 million to $8 million it will take to pursue the appeal, I would speak with Governor Shumlin to ask what measures he would like to see Entergy take if it remains open — possibly measures to improve transparency or safety. I would then negotiate the best deal I would with that company in exchange for withdrawing the appeal. We could better use the millions saved to repair damage from Irene or to fight drug-related crime.
Sorrell: Vermont’s law giving our legislature a real say on the future operations of Vermont Yankee should be upheld and thereby give effect to the state senate’s bipartisan 26-to-4 vote against continued operation of the plant.
Consequently, I will continue fighting the Entergy case at the federal appeals court in New York City. My office will also work with the Agency of Natural Resources on the thermal discharge permit process and, as requested, render assistance in the pending certificate of public good proceeding before the Public Service Board.
What distinguishes you from your opponents in this race, and in what specific ways will those distinctions make you a better attorney general?
Sorrell: First, I am the only candidate admitted to practice law in the courts of Vermont. Second, I have over fifteen years of experience as attorney general. The attorney general is the state’s chief law enforcement officer and I am the only candidate with criminal law experience. Prior to becoming attorney general, I served twice as the Chittenden County state’s attorney, spent ten years in private law practice, and was Gov. Howard Dean’s secretary of Administration for nearly five years. I have a very strong record in the areas of environmental protection, consumer protection and criminal justice.
Finally, I have concrete priorities for this next term, including enhancing our consumer protection efforts, stepping up our efforts to improve Lake Champlain’s water quality and putting greater effort into investigating and prosecuting the downloading and sharing of child pornography.
Stanak: I did not attend law school. I learned law through the Supreme Court’s “reading law” clerkship program. I immersed myself in legal work involving criminal prosecution, property law, indigenous peoples rights, contracts and environmental protection. I also taught legal research for more than 10 years to a broad cross section of Vermonters some of whom are now members of the judiciary and others who are practitioners in state agencies and private firms. I have been involved in many grass-roots efforts and organizations ranging from the anti nuclear movement to service as the president of the state employees union when I fought not only for our members but in the early efforts for health care coverage for all Vermonters.
I worked as a state employee for more than 30 years in administering Act 250 in a strict but fair manner. All of these experiences have provided me with the skills and insights necessary to be an activist attorney general. While I am motivated by a deep sense of commitment for taking action for the majority of Vermonters – sometimes described as the 99 percent – I am also anchored in a firm understanding of process and the ethical obligation for fair application of the law.
Having said that, we are at a “tipping point” in the history of Vermont and I am convinced that if specific actions are not taken for economic justice and in opposition to the corruption of democracy by large corporations, it will soon become most difficult, if not impossible, to restore the socioeconomic equity that was established in the 1930s after a period when many endured enormous suffering and a few prospered tremendously. We have a responsibility to those who will come after us.
McMullen: I have a management as well as a law background that would give me a different perspective in the office. A modern manager would focus the preponderance of resources on the most important problem facing the state. That problem is drug-related crime that has exploded in the last two years and is now at a tipping point. We must act decisively on this problem or risk losing our traditional status as a low crime state. Vermonters have a right to feel safe in their homes and communities. That is why many of them have come here to raise a family or stayed here despite the lesser economic opportunity.
Modern management suggests anticipating problems rather than waiting for them to happen then trying to pick up the pieces with litigation — a costly, time-consuming, and unpredictable tool. I would try to get ahead of problems by advising the legislature when I think laws they are drafting have undue constitutional risk. I would try to advise them of the small corrective actions they could take to avoid constitutional problems while still preserving the core of the policy the law is aimed at implementing.
I would favor negotiation over litigation, as a first approach, in instances of alleged civil wrongdoing. I would be as vigilant as the current attorney general has been on consumer protection against corporations engaged in questionable activities but would add questionable government activities to the list, something he has essentially ignored except for embezzlement cases.
I would investigate situations like Burlington Telecom and the massive apparent conflicts of interest among elected officials, wind developers, and VPIRG — with hundreds of thousands of contributions flowing one way and millions in state subsidies flowing the other.