October 21st, 2009

In Which VDB Offers Burlington Telecom Sage Advice That Will Inevitably Be Ignored

by Philip Baruth

Each political scandal has its own peculiar physics, but they all share one basic principle: public outrage increases in direct proportion to a lack of private transparency. “Get it out, get it out, get it out!” George Stephanopoulos used to yell in meetings about what to do with information about Whitewater and related Clinton-era boondoggles.

Bob Kiss, left, and Jonathan Leopold, right

Not a bad three-word prescription for any beleaguered politico or company, including Burlington Telecom. Granted, BT is nominally a public concern, but it has functioned in daily practice like the least transparent private companies.

But this morning things are looking very different indeed: BT and the Burlington CAO have now been caught dead to rights, putting together a financing arrangement out of the public eye and counter to the explicit conditions of its state operating license. “A left-handed bag-job,” as Hunter S. Thompson liked to say back in the day.

And even Jonathan Leopold, who has previously argued that the entire arrangement was above board and fully disclosed, now admits that his approach was “a mistake in hindsight.”

A novel admission for Leopold, but still an admission that amounts to weasel words: the illicit loan was a mistake not only in hindsight, but at the moment it was conceived and executed, and it’s impossible to believe that Leopold and Kiss didn’t know that, didn’t take it into consideration when they let the weeks slide by without full disclosure.

But to return to the opening statement above, the reverse is equally true: public outrage decreases in direct proportion to private transparency, even if the facts are relatively damning.

So let’s say that Burlington Telecom, a company which has come a long way toward embodying a fine ideal, picked up the phone and called VDB for advice on crisis management. We would advise four simple moves, all put into motion by lights out today:

1) Greenlight a company-wide audit, avoiding the State Auditor’s office but working with the City Council to select an independent agency capable of restoring trust in the condition of the books.

2) Immediately step up efforts to refinance the $17 million, making sure the City and taxpayers are not on the hook for additional interest or finance costs of any kind.

3) Signal willingness to work with the City to create a new, more transparent oversight agency for Burlington Telecom. The current arrangement, with Leopold as a sort of shadowy second CEO, has to end.

4) Announce plans to provide free wireless access for the length of Church Street, a concept we’ve spent the summer and fall talking about, but one that now looks doubly attractive for a company seeking to restore faith in its public mission.

The key concept here is giving: giving information about the company’s financial status, giving the City (and voters) a clearer path to oversight of BT, giving back some of the tangible benefits produced by an infrastructure that taxpayers brought into being originally. The universal wifi signal, a stream of information moving out, like rays from the sun, should become the company’s de facto ethical emblem as well.

Again, the key word is giving, as opposed to withholding. Any real and lasting solution to the company’s political troubles will eventually be drawn from that formula. Accepting that reality quickly is the key, and what tends to distinguish survivors from the eventual road-kill.

If you doubt that see Wikipedia, under the headings Nixon, Richard and/or Clinton, William Jefferson (see also Impeachment).

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  1. Vermont Daily Briefing » Honest to God Movement on WiFi Access said,

    on November 3rd, 2009 at 11:41 pm

    […] The thought was that Burlington Telecom, capitalized with taxpayer dollars, could wire up Church Street as both an advertisement of their product and in furtherance of their community mission. This thinking predated the current Burlington Telecom snafu, of course, but makes even more sense now for a company looking to quickly repair its otherwise solid public image. […]

  2. Vermont Daily Briefing » Right Down The Rat Hole: Mayor Bob Kiss Continues One-Man Drive To Erase His Party’s Substantial Burlington Legacy said,

    on March 3rd, 2011 at 9:32 am

    […] I’ve written other columns about this Mayor, and I’ve always offered him advice — maybe not advice he could or would accept, but advice that certainly couldn’t have made his situation any worse. […]