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Vermont Regulator Karen Marshall Joins Firm She Oversaw

From left: Karen Marshall, chief of ConnectVT; Chris Campbell, executive director of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority; and Gov. Peter Shumlin during a June 2012 press event. (VtDigger.org - Taylor Dobbs)

From left: Karen Marshall, chief of ConnectVT; Chris Campbell, executive director of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority; and Gov. Peter Shumlin during a June 2012 press event. (VtDigger.org - Taylor Dobbs)

Montpelier — Karen Marshall, who spearheaded Gov. Peter Shumlin’s universal broadband expansion efforts, is taking a job with one of the telecommunications companies she was charged with overseeing.

Marshall, who made $115,000 a year as chief of Conn-ectVT, will be the new president of VTel Data Network.

Michel Guite, chairman of VTel, said in a statement that Marshall has “a unique set of leadership skills to enhance the capacity of our team.”

The company, based in Springfield, Vt., received $116 million in federal stimulus grants in 2011 for broadband expansion in rural, underserved areas of the state.

“VTel is working very hard to build and deliver world class voice, video, wired and wireless data services within very demanding time commitments to federal and state partners,” Guite said. “Karen’s international experience in Canada and the United States make her a tremendous asset to lead development of our multi-state Canada-U.S. fiber network, and to help meet our overall build requirements.”

VTel is an independent telephone company with an optical fiber network in Vermont with connections to New York City, Boston and Montreal.

News of her hiring comes less than two weeks after the Shumlin administration and the Vermont Telecommunications Authority announced a $5 million grant to VTel to expand cellular service in southern Vermont. Marshall is a VTA board member and was present at the board meetings when the grant was approved in April and then amended on Dec. 7, both by voice vote.

She told the Valley News yesterday she did not engage in job conversations with VTel until Dec. 12, when she and Guite “had a mutual conversation on the 12th in which I shared some of the challenges I face in balancing some of my family considerations with my current role.”

A Williston, Vt., resident, Marshall said she is a “single and only parent” with a daughter in college and a high school-aged son in the Junior Bruins Hockey program in central Massachusetts. Her new job, she said, would involve a data network that is largely out of state and would enable her to be closer to her son, and that “a lot of my role will take me outside the borders of (Vermont).”

An executive code of conduct signed by Gov. Peter Shumlin by executive order doesn’t prohibit Marshall from taking such a job, but she would be prohibited from lobbying her former colleagues, or the Legislature, for a year on behalf of VTel.

The code of conduct also says appointees are not allowed to “take any official action that materially advances the interest of any entity (except the state of Vermont) with which the appointee is actively seeking employment.”

Gubernatorial appointees “shall not take any action in any particular matter in which he or she has either a conflict of interest or an appearance of a conflict of interest, until such time as the conflict is resolved,” it also states.

Marshall was quoted in a Shumlin press release on Dec. 28 announcing the $5 million VTel grant, saying, “The mission to connect Vermont is twofold: to achieve universal broadband service and to vastly expand our cellular service by the end of 2013. Our cell carriers are investing heavily to upgrade their existing networks to 4G/LTE at the same time we are seeking expanded coverage. This grant to VTel Wireless, a Vermont company, represents a significant investment in leading-edge micro and macro cell technology that will meet the needs of Vermonters. We are using the VTel Wireless broadband infrastructure of the WOW project as a foundation, then identifying where those sites overlap with Target Corridors. Our public funds leverage federal and private funds already at work as we avoid duplication of infrastructure and stretch our resources further.”

Marshall last evening said she and Guite “have agreed on a position” but have not finalized and signed an employment contract. “We’re still working on details,” she said.

She said she told Shumlin of her interest in a VTel job on Jan. 3, and submitted her resignation on Tuesday, effective tomorrow.

Asked for comment on Marshall’s new job, Shumlin spokeswoman Susan Allen said by email: “There is a state appointee policy on conflict of interest, and the governor expects all of his appointees to understand it and to follow it, including the portions that apply to conduct of business with the state after their departure. Karen had deep industry experience before her appointment, and it is no surprise that she would return to that field of work, particularly now that Vermont is on track to meet its broadband goal. When the administration learned that she had accepted an offer with VTel, we let her know that she would need to end her state employment immediately. We wish Karen well in her new position.”

State Sen. Joe Benning, a Caledonia Republican who also serves on the Vermont Telecommunications Authority Board, said he did not believe Marshall should be criticized for a conflict of interest if, as he had been told, her job discussions took place after the last grant was awarded.

“I thought she has done a wonderful job” balancing a role that included education of the public about broadband expansion while also working with providers in a technical field involving complicated contracts, said Benning, whose district includes several Orange County towns. Benning also said it’s to be expected that a small state such as Vermont would see talented executives take jobs in a related field after serving in government.

“People who have expertise in these areas are few and far between,” Benning said. “As long as it hasn’t been used to the advantage of the company in past situations, I think it’s a perfectly legitimate thing to happen.”

Marshall has had a long career in the private sector. She is a former executive for Clear Channel Radio, and at one time, she worked as an advertising executive for Comcast, a cable company that offers broadband service. Before joining the Shumlin administration, Marshall worked as a consultant. She also served briefly as the head of SecureShred, the document destruction company.

Her job was to ensure that Shumlin’s campaign pledge to extend universal broadband access to “every last mile” by 2013 is on track. In at least four press conferences over the last two years, the Shumlin administration has taken pains to reassure the public that VTel is moving ahead with the expansion.

Shumlin launched ConnectVT, shortly after he took office, and Marshall was the standalone entity’s sole employee. She had no budget per se and no employees to manage. Her office was on the fifth floor of the Pavilion building, where the governor’s closest advisors work.

In an interview, Marshall described her job as “master facilitator.” But the one-woman arm of state government also served as a gadfly-style enforcer: Her job has been to ensure that state and federal agencies, private companies and Vermont municipalities work together to meet the governor’s 2013 deadline.

The VTel project is key to that effort. No other company has received as much federal funding. Entities such as ECFiber and FairPoint are also expanding broadband in the state.

Marshall is the second Shumlin official this week to take a job in private industry. Alex MacLean, the governor’s chief of staff, is now working for Bill Stenger, the mastermind behind the enormous Northeast Kingdom economic expansion project funded with EB-5 visa program.