Courts & Corrections

Donovan keeps review of Vermont Attorney General’s office under wraps

TJ Donovan
Democratic attorney general candidate TJ Donovan on Church Street in Burlington. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan has asked for a “comprehensive” review of his office.

To that end, a group from the National Association of Attorneys General interviewed dozens of employees over a three-day period from June 5-7.

It is the first time the Vermont Attorney General’s office has undergone a management review in 20 years — since Bill Sorrell, the former AG, took office.

“I think it’s helpful to have outside folks with expertise come in and look at the office and see what’s working, what’s not working, what can be improved what doesn’t need to be improved,” Donovan said.

Donovan asked the association to review morale, caseloads, management and information technology. The newly installed Vermont Attorney General also sought help from the association for the development of a strategic plan. The request for a management review was made in February.

“There are areas that I’d like to improve upon and I think for me there are a few things we’re going to work on internally and better serve and protect Vermonters,” Donovan said.

The newly installed 43-year-old Vermont Attorney General, however, doesn’t see the review as an opportunity to give the public a glimpse of the internal workings of the office.

Donovan says he has no interest in releasing information about the review to the public.

There will be no written report, no recommendations and no written findings. Donovan has requested nothing in writing from the National Association of Attorneys General. While he may consider the release of an IT report, even that may be “privileged,” i.e., not released to the public.

“That information [the review] will remain private internally within the office,” Donovan said.

Why?

“Because it is with regards to people participating in the review, because it’s with regards to my decision making, to my internal communications,” he replied.

Why doesn’t that bear scrutiny? “It does.”

Then why isn’t it public?

“The final arbiter of whether or not I’m doing a good job is the next election,” Donovan said.

The Vermont Attorney General rebuffed a VTDigger records request placed on June 16 that asked for information, reports and/or communication about the management review.

In response, Sarah London, an assistant attorney general and former general counsel for Gov. Peter Shumlin, confirmed that there is no written report. Nor will recommendations be memorialized.

It appears there will be no paper trail, except for the notes taken by Deputy Attorney General Joshua Diamond and Chief Assistant Attorney General Bill Griffin.

The review consisted of interviews of “all levels of employees” of the Vermont Attorney General’s office and “resulted in verbal feedback” from the national association to Donovan, Diamond and Griffin “regarding their performance and the performance of other managers in the office.”

London says those records will “likely” be exempt under the Vermont Public Records Act. In her response, London did not make a determination about whether the request was denied. Instead, claiming an exemption under the public records law for “personal information,” she said the records are “likely exempt from public inspection as they are information related to the evaluation of employees of the Attorney General’s Office.”

In order for personal documents to be exempt under the state public records law, the records must relate “to an individual, including information in any files maintained to hire, evaluate, promote, or discipline any employee of a public agency.”

The Vermont Supreme Court has ruled that the term “personal documents is vague and potentially limitless.”

Court rulings indicate that the exemption must be interpreted narrowly. The law does not “exempt all personnel records, but only those ‘personal’ documents which reveal ‘intimate details of a person’s life, including any information that might subject the person to embarrassment, harassment, disgrace, or loss of employment or friends.’”

Both Donovan and Al Lama, the chief of staff of the National Association of Attorney Generals, said the review was a broad analysis of the office. No personnel or personal information was gathered, and neither the association, nor the Vermont Attorney General was targeting individuals.

The review was focused on “opportunities for improvement” in operations, processes and the performance of the Vermont Attorney General’s office more generally.

Nevertheless, the management review is off-limits to the public, Donovan said.

“To get this review and have it be worthwhile, we certainly relied on unfiltered, frankly full autonomy so we could get an honest assessment, and I certainly want to protect folks’ confidentiality about what they said to the management review team,” Donovan said.

Lama said the association hasn’t been asked by Donovan to put anything in writing. Reviews are typically conducted by a handful of lawyers from other attorney generals offices who volunteer to conduct interviews with staff. He declined further comment about the Vermont review.

“Oftentimes offices request written findings, often they don’t,” Lama said. “We also provide sometimes additional training as a result of the review, training staff on management principles. It varies, depending on the needs of the organization on and what the attorney general requests.”

In all, there are 2,000 pages of communications about the review, including thank you notes and scheduling emails, London said. The cost of employing attorneys with the AG’s office to redact the documents (blank out portions of the records) will be billed at a rate of 45 cents a minute for an average of 2 minutes per page. The pricetag? $1,516.50.

In his first six months in office, Donovan has delayed public records requests placed by VTDigger regarding the Coventry Town Clerk case over a six month period and his office has engaged in a court battle over Vermont EB-5 Regional Center records. In addition, the Vermont Attorney General’s office fought a request for public records kept on his predecessor Bill Sorrell’s private accounts in a case that is now before the Vermont Supreme Court. (VTDigger filed an amici brief with other news organizations in the case.)

Donovan insists he is trying to “improve services to Vermonters.”

“It’s not about hiding anything, it’s not about keeping things confidential,” Donovan said. “This is about providing the best service to Vermonters. And it’s going to be up to Vermont citizens whether they vote for me or not.”

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Anne Galloway

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  • Gary Murdock

    “The final arbiter of whether or not I’m doing a good job is the next election,” Donovan said.”
    Not sure why this is news. We all know that the letter “D” that comes after his name is an impenetrable shield in VT. He has nothing to worry about, he’s a democrat so nothing he does will ever diminish his chances for re-election.

  • Gail Graham

    Why am I not surprised?! I do believe that at least a summary could be presented, without divulging “protected” information. Does Mr. Donovan not realize that the fact that he is refusing to share the findings with the public, ie. tax payers and voters, causes some of us to be a bit suspect of why?

  • Barry Kade

    T,J.: I hope you would want the public to be informed when the next election comes around. A summary of the problems when you inherited the office and how you handled them is vital information towards that end. Just because you MAY be entitled to withhold information, especially by being careful not to create public records, does NOT mean you SHOULD withhold it.

  • Jim Manahan

    I will have to presume he’s hiding something, as he carries on this charade just as his predecessor did for years. We need honest and open government, not this.

  • J Scott Cameron

    I disagree with the commentators below. This is a very smart management decision – to ask a group of outside experts with no skin in the game to review the workings of your organization and make recommendations for improving service. This isn’t about trying to play ‘gotcha’ with staff or embarrassing anyone, it’s about providing both management and staff with insight about what they are doing and how they might do it better.

    Public executives and managers – elected and appointed – should be encouraged to perform outside reviews from time to time. If the product of that outside review were to be regarded as a public document it is less likely that they would do so. Further, if the authors of the review knew that their work would become public it is likely that they would be much more circumspect in their findings. It is much better to create an environment where the experts can offer direct, candid observations and recommendations. After all, the goal is to find ways to improve the performance of the agency.

    I applaud T. J. Donovan’s decision to seek an outside review. Complacency is never good for an organization. In my personal opinion Vermont has been blessed with a succession of excellent Attorney Generals over the course of my legal career (1980 to present). I haven’t agreed with all of them, all of the time, but I always respected them and the work of their office on behalf of the state. I believe that this outside review will make the Office of the Vermont Attorney General even better.

    • Neil Johnson

      He is to be congratulated for doing this without a doubt. When he doesn’t release the comments and isn’t able to show improvement hopefully his next opponent will bring this to light every day of the election trail.

      Vermont earned a D- in ethics, we have one of the lowest scores in the entire nation and almost the lowest score possible. Change can be difficult for some.

  • robert bristow-johnson

    Listen, whether in the public or private sphere, getting down to the nitty-gritty of office dynamics and “the vision thing” is gonna involve some personal and personnel issues and information (despite the denial of it). None of that stuff should be made public, especially during the heat of it. The boss is gonna be hearing contentious discussion involving specific employees and their work and their vision for their work. This information will be evaluated (by the boss) and maybe some employees’ visions will be affirmed and supported and others’ heads will roll. That doesn’t need to be in the public record. If someone gets canned and VTD finds out about it, that person has every right to tell VTD their version of the story and the AG office can respond or decline to respond.

    That said, just like any elected official, TJ needs to remember that we voters get to take whatever bias or baggage or conception or misconception with us into the voting booth. TJ has every right to do with the information he gets from this comprehensive review what he wants. He is not obligated to tell anyone anything about it. The information is his, it belongs to TJ. But our right to vote for whomever we want, for whatever reasons or motivation we want (including bad or foolish motivations), in the privacy of the voting booth, belongs to us.

    Right or wrong, TJ must deal with any perceived notion of opacity or transparency with the voters. He may be totally right, but if voters think he’s not sufficiently transparent, they can choose to toss his rear end out. (I doubt that will happen.)

  • Judith McLaughlin

    Who paid for the review, and how much did it cost? Just asking…..

  • Gary Murdock

    Ummm…darn, you got me on that one. I plead the 5th!

  • Rich Lachapelle

    Exception to the Vermont rule of permanent incumbency for democrats: when you impugn the gun rights of law-abiding Vermonters and/or vociferously support large scale wind power…

    • JohnGreenberg

      The rule is permanent incumbency, regardless of party. E.g. Jim Douglas, Jim Jeffords, Bob Stafford, Bernie Sanders, etc. none of whom are Ds.

      • Jim Manahan

        Regardless of Party? Hardly.
        Liberals have rejected an excellent candidate multiple times in Randy Brock, only to subject us to the integrity challenged Peter Shumlin, because he had a “D” next to his name

  • Elise Eaton

    Valid concerns over Donovan’s non-public vetting. He didn’t get my vote last election, and will not get it next election no matter what he does or does not do. His priorities and mine are no even close.