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Kenyon: Marketing Savvy  

Michel Guite told me that he started working on Karen Marshall about eight months ago to quit her job with the state of Vermont and join his telecommunications company in Springfield, Vt.

Marshall, the state’s point person on broadband expansion, didn’t inform her bosses, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, about Guite’s overtures until early January, when her move to VTel was nearly a fait accompli. Marshall wasn’t required to let them know, but now that she’s on Guite’s payroll, I hope she’s as good at keeping other people’s secrets as she is her own. In the highly competitive — not to mention potentially lucrative — telecommunications world, she was privy to the kind of information that trade secrets are made of.

For the last two years, Marshall ran ConnectVt, a state agency created to oversee the effort to bring universal broadband Internet service to Vermont. She was also the governor’s representative on the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, which has doled out millions of taxpayer dollars to private companies, including VTel, to help build the infrastructure.

With more than 20 companies competing to pave Vermont’s information highway, Marshall had access to a wealth of confidential, proprietary material from the various providers. She was in the loop about how much companies were willing to pay to lease coveted sites for wireless radio towers. She could call up pricing and other contract information not available to the public on her smartphone.

“She’s a talented individual and very good at what she does,” said Rich Kendall, president of Sovernet, the Bellows Falls, Vt.-based Internet and telecommunications services provider with residential and business customers throughout northern New England. “The state was lucky to have her. I can fully understand why she wanted to make the move — she’s got to make a living — and I don’t fault VTel for recruiting her.”

Still, the news that Marshall had jumped to one of his competitors was a surprise. And a bit unsettling, too. “She has a lot of information that could be useful to a competitor,” Kendall told me last week. “We share a lot of information with the state. It’s going to give me pause when the state asks me for the next round of information.”

I shared Kendall’s concerns with Marshall. “I will certainly respect the context under which the information was willingly shared by providers,” she said. “There’s a way to act ethically in business, and I think most professionals operate that way. I know I do.”

That’s good to hear. I just hope that she remains firm if the interests of her new employer conflict with her previous responsibilities. VTel has done remarkably well in attracting government money. In 2011, VTel received $116 million in federal stimulus grants for broadband expansion in rural parts of the state. But Guite readily acknowledges his company’s weakness as well. “We aren’t very good at selling,” he told me. “We don’t think like salesmen.”

Before Marshall started her state job, which paid $115,000 a year, she worked for Clear Channel Radio and was an advertising executive at Comcast. After watching Marshall do a “really good job of bringing all the different (telecommunications) parties together,” at ConnectVT, Guite came to think that his company could use someone with her marketing savvy.

At first, Marshall indicated that “moving to Springfield isn’t in my plans,” Guite said. But Marshall, who lives in the Burlington area, said she had a “mutual conversation” with Guite in mid-December about joining VTel.

On Dec. 21, Guite sent an email to Marshall that had gone out the same day to VTel’s 60 employees. (It was among the emails that I received in a recent public records request to the state) “We need to think of sales and selling as a new way of life,” Guite wrote. “Comcast does it. Wal-Mart does it. AT&T Wireless does it. We must learn it, and do it well.”

Shortly after Christmas, while on a ski lift in Colorado, Guite texted Marshall to let her know that her unwillingness to work out of VTel’s Springfield headquarters was no longer a deal breaker. A couple of days later, Guite heard back from Marshall. “Let’s talk,” she said. What changed?

Marshall said she took stock of her personal life. She’s a single mother with a daughter in college and a teenage son who plays junior hockey in Massachusetts. Guite’s offer to put her in charge of his company’s data network, which has much of its operations in Massachusetts, would allow her to see her son more.

Marshall’s reasons for accepting Guite’s offer — neither would say what she’s being paid — makes sense. But the move came at the expense of the public trust.

During the time that Guite recruited Marshall, his company was pursuing a $5 million state grant to expand cellular service in four counties, including Windsor. Twice last year, the last time being as recently as Dec. 7, Marshall, in her role as a Vermont Telecommunications Authority board member, voted to approve the grant. Less than a week later, she was talking with Guite about going to work for him. But she didn’t inform Shumlin that she was talking with Guite until Jan. 3. Five days later, she submitted her resignation, and on Jan. 28 started at VTel.

Under state policy, Marshall is prohibited from lobbying legislators or the administration for a year. Otherwise, she’s free to roam. Some lawmakers want to close (or at least, slow) the revolving door between the public and private sectors. State Rep. Alison Clarkson, of Woodstock, is having the legislative staff research how other states handle such thorny ethical matters. Meanwhile, state Sen. Mark MacDonald, of Williamstown, is considering filing legislation that would require higher-level state employees to notify their supervisors whenever they entertain job offers. The way that Marshall exited “wasn’t the state’s best hour,” said MacDonald.

And there’s no time like the present for lawmakers to take steps so it doesn’t happen again.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at 603-727-3212 or Jim.Kenyon@valley.net