You might call it plantgate, except the suffix “-gate” gives the story a level of notoriety that ordinarily does not attach to houseplants. Yet how the houseplants of a Cabinet secretary migrated upstream to Montpelier after Tropical Storm Irene is a mystery only now unraveling.
Rather than a scandal, it is more like one of those embarrassments that public officials occasionally must endure as the price of public service in a nation professing an ethos of egalitarian democracy.
It began, as did so much, with Irene, when the Winooski River inundated the state office complex in Waterbury. Natural Resources Secretary Deborah Markowitz had her office there, and at her office she had her plants.
At some point in the aftermath of the flood, as the state was reeling from the death and destruction of Irene, two game wardens from the Fish and Wildlife Department received instructions to go to Markowitz’s office to retrieve her plants. They followed their instructions and delivered their cargo to her Montpelier home.
There are two ways to look at this, and it wouldn’t have been a story unless some people were looking at it in one of those ways. The less favorable scenario has a high government official commandeering government personnel to carry out a mission to benefit her personally. People get fired for that sort of thing.
The game wardens received their instructions from Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry. Berry said Markowitz never asked for help with her plants. Rather, she described to him her dismay that she might lose plants that she had possessed since her childhood, including a small tree that had belonged to her mother, who had died when Markowitz was young. Berry took it upon himself to secure the help of the game wardens in rescuing those half dozen plants.
As an abuse of office, this is small potatoes. It is embarrassing mainly because there was a great deal of more important work that needed to be done amid the devastation of Irene. Maj. Dennis Reinhardt, second in command of the state’s game wardens, acknowledged to Associated Press reporter Dave Gram, “I understand why it doesn’t look good.”
In contrast, consider the case of John Rowland, the former governor of Connecticut, who resigned from office in 2004 and served 10 months in federal prison for receiving $107,000 in gifts and services from people doing business with the state — including work done on his vacation home.
Or consider Steven Kuhr, New York’s emergency management director, who was fired by Gov. Andrew Cuomo for using a Suffolk County work crew to remove a tree from his driveway after Hurricane Sandy.
Or consider Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, who acknowledged this week that the CIA had been in the habit of dropping off bags full of cash for him to use as he saw fit, including as payoffs to warlords. There is corruption, and there is corruption.
The sensitivity in Vermont to small instances of special treatment or abuse of power is both a symptom of and a cause for the expectation that public servants in the state will practice an ethos of good government. Slight deviations are noted. Remember Ralph Wright’s shower? Or his hockey tickets? It’s hard to think of blatant instances. The sensitivity of Vermonters and the curiosity of reporters help ensure that any politician or government official who wants to cut corners or call in favors will not escape notice. That is a good thing.
For conscientious public servants such as Markowitz and Berry, the acute public conscience of Vermonters may be a source of discomfort and embarrassment. Then again, anyone who has maintained a dracaena majoris for some number of decades and, presumably, has moved it from office to office during a long career, may not easily fall into the category of political malefactor. She loves her plants — for a secretary of natural resources, that ought to be a plus.
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