Politics

Margolis: Will Illuzzi’s past hurt his chances – and should it?

Sen. Vince Illuzzi. VTD file/Josh Larkin
Sen. Vince Illuzzi. VTD file photo/Josh Larkin

Jon Margolis is VTDigger.org’s political analyst.

On Sept. 1, 1993, Republican state Sen. Vincent Illuzzi’s license to practice law was suspended for six months. It was neither the first time Vermont’s judicial system had penalized him, nor would it be the last. He had been privately reprimanded in 1978 and 1983. In 1994, during the fifth month of his suspension, four of the five Supreme Court justices complained that Illuzzi had filed “unfounded” complaints against a trial judge. After an investigation by the Professional Conduct Board, Illuzzi was very nearly disbarred. Not until July 1998 was his law license restored.

Now, some 19 years after the suspension and more than 12 years after he won back the right to practice law, Illuzzi is running for statewide office, raising a few inescapable questions: Will his past ethical infractions become a factor in the campaign? Will Democrats raise the subject in an effort to tarnish his reputation? If they do, will it hurt Illuzzi’s campaign for auditor?

And should it?

Or is there a political statute of limitations which voters will judge to have run its course?

“I hope people will look at my 32-year record,” said Illuzzi, pointing out that he has worked well with Democrats and Progressives in the Legislature.

After all, Illuzzi’s past legal troubles are by no means the extent or even the preponderance of the record he brings to the campaign. He is one of the most influential members of the Senate, in fact, of the entire Legislature. The Democrats who dominate the Senate think enough of this not-very conservative Republican that he is one of only two Republicans to chair a committee (Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs; the other is Kevin Mullin of Rutland, chair of the Education Committee). He has played a key role in the passage (and the defeat) of major legislation. Nor has his influence been confined to the Legislature. When the state joined with private interests in 1998 to preserve the 133,000 acres of Essex County then owned by Champion International Paper Co., then-Gov. Howard Dean publicly praised Illuzzi’s role in the putting together the package.

“This was your idea,” Dean told Illuzzi.

Furthermore, he kept getting re-elected. Most of his Northeast Kingdom constituents seemed unconcerned about his ethical lapses.

One of those above questions can be answered definitively. Doug Hoffer, the policy analyst who will be Illuzzi’s Democratic (and probably Progressive) opponent, has no intention of dredging up Illuzzi’s past.

First of all, Hoffer, who has done some work for Illuzzi’s committee, rather likes his opponent.

“We have not socialized,” Hoffer said. “We’re not friends. But he’s a good guy. I’m not going to talk about his skill set and his experience other than to compare them to mine.”

“We have not socialized,” Hoffer said. “We’re not friends. But he’s a good guy. I’m not going to talk about his skill set and his experience other than to compare them to mine.”

But that will not include, Hoffer said, getting into Illuzzi’s “personal life and his other issues.”

Hoffer’s campaign website (Illuzzi does not yet have one) does not mention his opponent. Instead, Hoffer lists his own qualifications, and claims he has “the experience, the temperament, and the drive to be the State Auditor you deserve.”

Jake Perkinson, the Democratic state chair, said that neither the party organization or any Democratic he knows “have any plans to talk about (Illuzzi’s former ethical difficulties).”

Still, it’s almost impossible to conclude that sometime between now and November the subject will not come up. First of all, in every campaign, most major news organizations run profiles of the statewide candidates. A reporter who totally ignored Illuzzi’s past troubles would be guilty of journalistic malpractice.

In fact, interviewing Illuzzi on June 12 on WDEV, Mark Johnson asked Illuzzi about the “slew of ethical charges” against him. Illuzzi called it “a fair question,” and acknowledged, “if that’s the focus of the campaign, I’ll lose. But you can’t wash away my 32 years of service in the Legislature. It’s a balance. If people are looking for a reason to vote against me, you’ve given it to them. If they look at my record and experience, they’ll vote for me.”

Besides, partisans want to win. It’s unlikely that at some point, some Democrat won’t succumb to the temptation of discussing Illuzzi’s past in the hopes that it will help elect Hoffer.

In fact, one already has, though he did so in the context of Illuzzi’s possible candidacy for attorney general. John Walters, who, under the pseudonym “jvwalt,” blogs for the Democratic-leaning website Green Mountain Daily has written about what he called Illuzzi’s “decisively checkered ethical past.”

Sen. Randy Brock, left, a member of legislative council and Sen. Vince Illuzzi look at draft legislation. Photo by Taylor Dobbs
Sen. Randy Brock, left, a member of legislative council and Sen. Vince Illuzzi look at draft legislation. VTD file photo/Taylor Dobbs

By his own description, Walters is neither a power in the Democratic Party nor a household name. And like most political blogs, GMD does not have a mass audience. But “the political community” – to use the term coined by the great reporter Jack Germond to describe the candidates, activists, lobbyists, contributors and reporters who follow campaigns – does read it.

Walters said he was probably “pretty much done” with the subject for now, and that Illuzzi’s past was “not as pertinent” in the auditor’s race as it would have been had he chosen to run for attorney general. But he thought the matter was still worth “discussing and exploring.”

A full accounting of Illuzzi’s dealings with Vermont’s legal discipline regime would require a full-length treatment of its own. To summarize: After a few minor infractions which earned him those private reprimands, an opposing lawyer in a personal injury case accused Illuzzi of misconduct in 1990. The Professional Conduct Board began an investigation headed by the bar counsel, Wendy Collins, who in 1992 concluded that Illuzzi was guilty of “submission of false evidence or false statements during the disciplinary process.”

He might have been disciplined for that. But then he counter-attacked, filing three judicial conduct complaints against Judge David Suntag. There may have been merit to some of those complaints. Suntag was holding Essex County cases in courthouses far from the county, so that, as Illuzzi now says, “If you wanted to get a divorce,you’d have to take a long drive.”

But merit or not, there was the incontrovertible fact that Suntag was Wendy Collins’ husband. Illuzzi’s complaints smacked of vindictiveness. It was then that the Supreme Court justices filed their complaint, and Illuzzi avoided disbarment only by stipulating that his allegations against Suntag were “in reckless disregard of the facts,” did not have “any reasonable basis,” and that he made them because he “does not personally like Judge Suntag” whom he found “arrogant and autocratic.” Then and now, Illuzzi has acknowledged that he was wrong.

It was then that the Supreme Court justices filed their complaint, and Illuzzi avoided disbarment only by stipulating that his allegations against Suntag were “in reckless disregard of the facts,” did not have “any reasonable basis,” and that he made them because he “does not personally like Judge Suntag” whom he found “arrogant and autocratic.” Then and now, Illuzzi has acknowledged that he was wrong.

The question that can not be definitively answered, because the answer is inherently subjective, is the one about that political statute of limitations. Whether enough time has passed, whether Illuzzi has shown sufficient regret, whether he has learned and changed are questions each voter will have to decide for himself or herself. If Democrats – overtly or covertly – do try to bring up Illuzzi’s past, the tactic could backfire as voters decide bygones are bygones.

People do change. Even politicians. To take just one example – but one that might interest active Democrats – Robert F. Kennedy at 35 was brash, sometimes small-minded, and occasionally vindictive when he managed his brother’s campaign for president in 1960. A few years later, tempered by tragedy and experience, he had not lost all those traits, but they were buffered by increasing tolerance, generosity and openness to new ideas.

Vince Illuzzi, to paraphrase the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen’s wisecrack of the 1988 campaign, is no Bobby Kennedy. He has faced no comparable tragedy. But he, too, seems to have matured. He was a single man in his late 30s and early 40s when he had his problems with the legal system. He will turn 59 shortly before Election Day. In the last 15 years he has gotten married, had a child (now 10 years old), and built a home in his Northeast Kingdom district.

“Everybody grows and matures and learns from their mistakes,” Illuzzi said. He hopes voters think he has matured enough to ignore the less admirable parts of his past. It’s too much for him to hope that nobody mentions them.

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Jon Margolis

About Jon

Jon Margolis is VTDigger's columnist. He is the author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964, left the Chicago Tribune early in 1995 after 23 years as Washington correspondent, sports writer, correspondent-at-large and general columnist. Margolis spent most of his Tribune years in the Washington Bureau as the newspaper’s chief national political correspondent. In 1988, he was a one of the journalists asking questions of Senators Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle in their televised vice presidential debate. Before joining the Tribune in 1973, Margolis had been the Albany Bureau Chief for Newsday. He was the first reporter on the scene of the Attica prison rebellion in 1971, and spent the entire first night inside the prisoner-held “D” yard. Earlier, Margolis was a reporter for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J.; the Miami Herald and the Concord Monitor (N.H.). In addition to The Last Innocent Year, published by William Morrow in 1999, he is the author of How To Fool Fish With Feathers: An Incompleat Guide to Fly Fishing (Simon and Schuster, 1991) and The Quotable Bob Dole — Witty, Wise and Otherwise, (Avon Books, 1995). He also wrote two chapters of Howard Dean: A citizens Guide to the Man Who Would be President (Steerforth, 2003). A native of New Jersey, Margolis graduated from Oberlin College in 1962. He served in the US Army.

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