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Editorial: Marshall’s New Job; Telecom Official’s Troubling Move

WOW! No, we don’t refer to the Wireless Open World network mentioned in a Dec. 28 press release from the Shumlin administration announcing that the Vermont Telecommunications Authority had awarded $5 million to VTel, the telecommunications company based in Springfield, Vt.

We mean: Wow! We can’t believe the ethical cluelessness of the major players involved.

How clueless? Among those quoted in the Dec. 28 press release was Karen Marshall, then head of ConnectVT, a state agency created by Gov. Peter Shumlin to oversee the effort to bring universal broadband Internet service to Vermont. Marshall was also a board member of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, the source of VTel’s latest infusion of government money. Marshall was at the board meeting on Dec. 7 when it approved an amended grant to VTel by voice vote. Five days later, she had a “mutual conversation” with Michel Guite, VTel chairman, about the possibility of working for his company.

Yes, you guessed it: She got a job. She’s going to be the president of VTel Data Network.

Marshall has “a unique set of leadership skills to enhance the capacity of our team,” Guite said.

Indeed.

She earned it, we suppose. It’s hard to imagine a better way of making a favorable impression on a future boss than playing a role in the granting of $5 million to his company.

Of course, everybody would deny that there was a quid pro quo involved in the deal, and of course that wouldn’t and doesn’t matter in the slightest. A state employee can’t play a part in making a significant award to a private company and discuss employment with that same company less than a week later without leaving a powerful stench.

The Shumlin administration seems unperturbed by Marshall’s easy glide into the VTel position. She informed Shumlin of her interest in the job on Jan. 3, Marhall told Valley News staff writer John Gregg, and submitted her resignation five days later.

“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,” said Susan Allen, Shumlin’s spokeswoman. “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.”

Under an executive order signed by Shumlin, Marshall is prohibited from lobbying the administration or legislators for a year after leaving state employment. That ethics policy also states that 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.”

So, when Marshall was quoted in the Dec. 28 press release explaining how the $5 million grant to VTel would benefit Vermont, the fact that she had already talked with Guite about working for VTel didn’t constitute a conflict of interest?

State Sen. Joe Benning, a Republican from Caledonia County and a board member of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, was also unruffled. “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.”

Are people with telecommunications expertise all that difficult to find? We suspect that people with Marshall’s connections are much more precious to the private sector.

Meanwhile,VTel, which previously had received a $116 million federal stimulus grant to deliver high-speed Internet access to the remotest nooks of Vermont, has until the end of the year to help the Shumlin administration deliver on its promise of creating a universally connected state. A number of the company’s critics have spoken disparagingly of its wireless technology and expressed fear that the state is saddling itself with an inferior telecommunications infrastructure.

After this episode, though, few can doubt one thing about VTel: It knows how to make connections.