Crime and Justice

Attorney general finds no evidence that Vergennes police chief committed fraud

Main Street in Vergennes as seen on Aug. 9. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

After investigating allegations of fraudulent conduct, Attorney General TJ Donovan announced Friday he will not take further action against Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel. 

At the request of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, Vermont State Police first reviewed a complaint made by Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton. It alleged that Merkel made false timesheet reports, which resulted in erroneous overtime payments from the Governor’s Highway Safety Program (GHSP). 

In a statement, the Attorney General’s Office said it would not prosecute Merkel for false reporting, as “there is no evidence to suggest that Chief Merkel acted with intent to defraud the GHSP.” 

Merkel responded to the allegations and the Attorney General’s findings in an email addressed to the Vergennes community.

“I am sorry the City of Vergennes and the Vergennes Police Department has been the subject of such baseless, false, and scathing accusations,” he wrote. “The people of the City of Vergennes and its police department did not deserve this, nor did I or my family.”

Merkel claimed in the statement that the sheriff’s complaint resulted from competition for grants and contracts with other towns. 

“These attacks were perpetrated because the Vergennes Police Department received a federal highway safety grant, as well as a traffic enforcement contract with the Town of Addison, as opposed to the originator of these false accusations, who had also applied for these opportunities,” Merkel wrote. “The Vergennes Police Department also presented competition for other municipalities contracts for law enforcement services but did not receive them.” 

City manager Daniel Hofman also issued a statement in which he accused Newton of initiating the investigation for personal gain.

The Attorney General’s Office noted that the allegation of false reporting is an allegation of criminal fraud. The office reviewed all materials provided by Vermont State Police.

“A two-year lookback of all overtime requests from all sources, including GHSP, claimed by Chief Merkel from June 1, 2018, through June of 2020, revealed discrepancies on three separate occasions for a total of 15 hours of overtime,” the release states. “The discrepancies appear to be clerical mistakes.” 

The investigation acknowledged discrepancies between GHSP officer activity and time reports submitted by Merkel, but said they did not find evidence that Merkel intended to defraud the GHSP program. 

The overtime paid through GHSP corresponded with actual highway safety-related activity undertaken by Merkel within the relevant time frame, the release said. 

Newton still does not believe the timesheet reporting discrepancies were clerical in nature, and said he plans to pursue further action. 

“I’m going to show the state’s attorney what we have, and ask him to request a grand jury,” Newton said. “I’m happy to lay it out for people to see it, and let them decide.”

The AG’s office said it has concluded all investigations into the chief’s conduct as of Friday’s announcement. The press release did not contain information about the sheriff’s allegations that the chief failed to report demographic data, required by Vermont’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy, for 74 traffic stops between July 1, 2018 and May 1, 2020. 

“I have been exonerated from the accusations filed,” Merkel wrote. “As well as clearing my name and my department’s name and reputation from these malicious and unprecedented attacks, I will pursue measures to prevent further abuses of power by my accusers.”

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Southern Vermont. She previously worked as a reporter for the Addison Independent, where she covered politics, business, the arts and environmental issues. She also served as an assistant editor at Vermont Sports magazine and VT Ski + Ride. Emma majored in science journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she was editor-in-chief of the Current. In 2018, she received a first-place award from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in the columnist category.

Email: [email protected]

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