Vergennes police chief cleared of fraud allegation

MONTPELIER — Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan on Friday announced his office had cleared Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel of allegations of that he had fraudulently reported overtimes.
The investigation was begun by Addison County Sheriff Peter Newton and Deputy Brent Newton and completed by Vermont State Police and forwarded to Donovan’s office. 
Sheriff Newton, Deputy Newton and state police looked at two years of work hours reported by Merkel and traffic stop data leading to an allegation that Merkel had mis-assigned hours he was working for the city to the Governor’s Highway Safety Program (GHSP), and that he also failed to keep complete data on the racial identities of those his department dealt with in traffic stops.
Donovan’s press release stated, “The Attorney General’s Office is declining to prosecute Chief Merkel for false reporting as there is no evidence to suggest that Chief Merkel acted with intent to defraud the GHSP. In reaching this decision, the Office reviewed all of the materials provided by the Vermont State Police (VSP), who conducted the investigation.”
The press release cites the two-year time frame reviewed by both the sheriff’s department and VSP, and said VSP reported “discrepancies on three separate occasions for a total of 15 hours of overtime.”
However, the statement continued:
“The discrepancies appear to be clerical mistakes. The investigation revealed that, while there are some discrepancies with some GHSP Officer Activity and Time Reports submitted by Chief Merkel, there is no evidence that Chief Merkel had an intent to defraud the GHSP program. Any hour of overtime paid through GHSP corresponded with actual highway safety-related activity undertaken by Chief Merkel.” 
The attorney general’s office’s press release did not mention the allegation of failing to record traffic stop data, but its last line stated, “Today’s announcement concludes all ongoing investigations regarding Chief Merkel conducted by the Attorney General’s Office.”
VSP had become involved at the request of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council.
In Sheriff Newton’s 16-page report submitted to the AG’s office, he had concluded that Merkel “commits the act of false reporting, as detailed in his city and Governor Highway Safety timesheets. Second, he has committed biased policing by failing to adhere to Vermont’s Fair and Impartial Policing Policy.”
Newton also alleged that Vergennes City Manager Daniel Hofman refused to cooperate with his investigation, and that Hofman and Merkel obstructed it by speaking with Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans:
“Third, he has attempted to interfere with a council investigation through Daniel Hofman who committed obstruction of justice. He also was in direct contact with Dennis Wygmans inquiring about an investigation regarding himself.”
The Addison County Sheriff’s Department and the Vergennes Police Department have competed for traffic control contracts in Ferrisburgh and Addison in the past two years, with Ferrisburgh choosing to remain with the sheriff’s department, and Addison this year choosing to sign an agreement with the city police force.
Hofman cited that competition and the fact that Vergennes received control of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program as motivation for Sheriff Newton’s investigation.
Hofman also cited a meeting early in 2019 mentioned in Newton’s report attended by both Newtons, then Mayor Jeff Fritz and an unnamed aldermen that occurred shortly after Merkel first approached Addison about a contract.
As well as writing that Merkel was “rightly exonerated,” Hofman noted the sheriff collects 5% of contract revenues as part of his compensation, and in a conversation with the Independent Hofman said Fritz might have been involved with the beginning of the investigation. Hofman wrote: 
“This investigation was initiated by these individuals in what some may consider to be a retaliatory manner. The secrecy and lack of transparency surrounding these events is truly alarming and disturbing particularly as it involves two former and one current elected official,” and that “I believe this investigation was initiated by Sheriff Newton for financial gain.”
Merkel also issued a statement, saying that he had remained silent out of respect for an ongoing investigation.
Now that it is concluded, he wrote: “I am sorry the City of Vergennes and the Vergennes Police Department has been the subject of such baseless, false, and scathing accusations. The people of the City of Vergennes and its police department did not deserve this, nor did I or my family.”  
Merkel also echoed Hofman’s opinion about the financial motivation for the initial investigation, and added, “As well as clearing my name and my department’s name and reputation from these malicious and unprecedented attacks, I will pursue measures to prevent further abuses of power by my accusers.” 
He concluded, in part: “Thank you to all those who stuck with me during this terrible time and did not lose faith in me or my officers. I/we will continue to provide the best police services we can to all residents of the City of Vergennes.
Sheriff Newton insisted the AG’s office’s conclusion did not mean Merkel was innocent.
“What’s important to note is they declined prosecution because they couldn’t prove intent. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t wrongdoing. It means they couldn’t prove there was intent to defraud the government,” Newton told the Independent.
Newton cited as an example Merkel allegedly overcharging the GHSP program for 90 minutes for a traffic stop he made on the way to a speaking engagement at the VSP training academy in Pittsford.
“I’m happy to show the evidence to anyone who wants to see it, because it’s there,” he said. “One or two times is a clerical error. But when I see the same thing over and over again, that’s a common scheme and plan.”
Newton also denied it was more than a simple threat of competition that motivated the investigation.
“I’m not concerned about anybody going after a contract. What my concern is when you mislead selectboards to believe you have a better police departments with better trained officers and can do more than we can do,” he said.
Newton also said grants the Vergennes department is awarded to enhance its work should not be used to entice towns to sign contracts.
“I think it’s very unprofessional of him to use his grants as a tool. ‘If you pick me I’ve got these grants.’ That’s not what these grants are designed for, for you to use as a tool to market yourself,” Newton said.
After disagreeing with Merkel’s approach, Newton acknowledged starting a probe.
“That’s when we started getting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests done, because we wanted to know exactly what he was telling selectboards,” he said.
In Vergennes Newton said he faced high fees for FOIA requests and “settled on paying $1,800 for George Merkel’s time sheets,” in part, according to his report, on advice from Brent Newton, a former city police officer.
The sheriff concluded an interview with the news that he would still pursue what he believes is Merkel’s guilt. Newton said he is not sure the AG’s office reviewed the full report he forwarded to them rather than just the VSP evidence.
“I’m still going to go the state’s attorney with the evidence and ask for a grand jury, because I’m not sure what evidence the state police showed them,” he said.

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