Vt. gov., back from Caribbean, defends secrecy

AP News
Posted: Mar 09, 2011 5:48 PM
Vt. gov., back from Caribbean, defends secrecy

Sun-kissed and amused by the brouhaha, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin returned from a Caribbean getaway with no apologies for keeping his vacation destination a secret or for going there without his security detail.

The first-term Democrat's whereabouts became the subject of speculation and news reports after staff members said they either didn't know where he was or wouldn't say after he left Thursday.

Adding to the public interest in his whereabouts, Vermont got walloped by its biggest-ever March snowstorm, which dumped more than two feet of snow in places and closed schools and some state government offices.

Shumlin revealed Wednesday that he had been to the island of Dominica in the West Indies and that he had purposely asked his staff not to disclose it _ so he could be a private citizen and so the island wouldn't be subjected to the hubbub of a visiting dignitary.

He defended the secrecy of his four-day vacation and his decision to wave off his security detail _ plainclothes Vermont State Police troopers who shadow him wherever he goes in Vermont.

He said he took the advice of former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who told Shumlin and others at a recent training for new governors how to get along in their new roles.

One suggestion was that "occasionally, when you take a vacation in a stable democracy where they don't know who you are, go without security and really take a vacation," Shumlin said. "I took his advice. We thought it was best that the little island of Dominica didn't know that I was the governor. They didn't. ... It was great to be an ordinary citizen for a few days."

He said he would never go without security if he was on state business, but that it was appropriate in this case.

"The people in Dominica and the small communities where I were had no idea who I was, and there's no better security than that," he said.

But Vermont State Police were concerned about Shumlin's safety even before he left, according to an e-mail message obtained by The Associated Press through the state Public Records Act.

"Can you give me an update as to the Governor's status while he is gone?" wrote Lt. Michael Macarilla, assistant staff operations commander, to Shumlin chief of staff Bill Lofy on Feb. 28. "Just an idea where he is God forbid there is a natural disaster or civil unrest etc.... in that area."

Lofy, in turn, forwarded the message to Shumlin scheduler Shana Trombley, who later provided the details of Shumlin's travel and where he was staying. That information was blacked out in the copy provided to the AP on Wednesday.

Shumlin's stance is a departure from that of his predecessor, Republican Jim Douglas, who took his security detail with him everywhere _ even on vacation.

"I always felt that a governor surrenders a certain amount of privacy. And I came to accept that," Douglas said.

The former governor recalled a 2009 agricultural trade mission to France, during which he and his contingent encountered a person with a gun on a Paris street.

"France is a pretty stable democracy, but incidents occur. And I was pleased to have police accompaniment," Douglas said.

Patricia McDonald, chairwoman of the Vermont Republican Party, was among those who'd criticized the handling of the absence.

"The bottom line for me is that, when asked by the press, his key staff _ his press secretary and secretary of administration _ said they did not know where he was. That, to me, was not an acceptable answer.

"If they didn't want to share where he was, I don't have a problem with that. I don't need to know where the governor is on vacation. But his staff should've said `The governor is on vacation' and when asked where, they could've said `We'd like to protect his privacy' or something along that line," she said. Home to about 70,000 people, Dominica is located between Guadeloupe and Martinique.

While Shumlin was there, the big winter storm was rendering Vermont roads and highways nearly impassable.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who was in charge in Shumlin's absence, gave the order to close government offices, but Shumlin said he was in regular touch with state Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn and emergency management officials.

"If I'd have made the judgment that my being here would've made a difference, I would've been on a plane in a heartbeat," he said.

Or maybe not. Burlington International Airport, the state's main commercial airport, was closed from 8:30 p.m. Sunday to 9 p.m. Monday because of the storm.

"I seriously don't think he could've gotten in here," said interim airport director Bob McEwing.