After Allegation, State Officials Say No Record Of Sex Crime By Government Employee
Top state officials say they have no records indicating that a Vermont state employee was arrested for having sex with a minor while traveling on government business in China.
The allegation — made by Stowe attorney Russell Barr, a lawyer in a case involving the Northeast Kingdom EB-5 scandal — has roiled the political world in Vermont.
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Barr, however, has yet to produce any evidence supporting the claim. And Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan says his office has found no records related to the alleged arrest.
“We have no evidence within the state that this claim is true,” Donovan said Tuesday.
Barr first made the allegation on Monday afternoon, after a two-and-a-half-hour hearing at Lamoille County Superior Court.
"We have no evidence within the state that this claim is true." — Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan
Barr is representing a group of foreign investors who were defrauded by the massive EB-5 scam in the Northeast Kingdom, and he’d lured reporters to the hearing by promising a tantalizing revelation.
Standing outside the courtroom, with television cameras rolling, Barr alleged that a Vermont official was arrested in China a few years ago while on a trip to promote Vermont’s EB-5 projects. Reporters then pressed Barr for the precise nature of the crime.
“It was having sex with a minor,” Barr said. “And one of the other officials on the trip actually bailed out that official, so we’re trying to figure out who bailed out the other official, and why wasn’t this explained to our state, to our citizens.”
Donovan says that if Barr has information related to the exploitation of a minor, then he has a responsibility to hand it over.
“Let me be clear: If it occurred and Russell Barr has evidence that a state official committed child sexual abuse, I am calling on Attorney Barr to immediately turn over that evidence to the proper authorities,” Donovan says.
Gov. Phil Scott says Barr’s revelation on Monday was the first he’d ever heard of the alleged arrest. Barr says the alleged incident occurred in 2013 or 2014.
"I was as surprised as anyone else when I heard about that, read about that this morning. Certainly startling, certainly serious, if true." — Gov. Phil Scott
“I was as surprised as anyone else when I heard about that, read about that this morning. Certainly startling, certainly serious, if true,” Scott says.
Whether or not it is true is something Scott says he’s asked his commissioner of public safety to begin investigating.
“Trying to do a little fact-finding from our perspective, just to see what was done and what wasn’t, and if there was an investigation that had taken place previously that maybe that would lend itself to the conversation now,” Scott says.
If the allegation is true, then Scott says, "I’m sure there’s a record trail somewhere."
Rumors of illegal activity by a Vermont government official while on official EB-5 business in China have been swirling for years: In the summer of 2014, Brady Toensing, now the vice-chair of the Vermont Republican Party, filed a request for any documents related arrest of state official in China.
He received a response on Aug. 22 from Jonathan Kessler, the general counsel for the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, which, at the time, oversaw all aspects of the state's EB-5 program:
"I wanted to close the loop with you on your request regarding any records of a person being arrested or detained on one of our trips to China," Kessler wrote to Toensing. "I reiterated the original request and emphasized that I needed to know all personal devices were checked as well. All replies came back negative."
Barr is representing investors who have filed a civil suit against the state of Vermont. They allege the state was negligent in its oversight of the EB-5 program. As such, Barr has a vested interest in making the state’s role in the EB-5 program look as damning possible.
More from VPR — Feds Say Inadequate State Oversight 'Allowed' Alleged EB-5 Fraud To Flourish (Aug. 22, 2017)
Barr says he’s ready to trade information with Donovan, but only under certain conditions.
“Well, if they want to sit down, like we’ve been asking them to do for a long time, to investigate lots of activities, including this, I’d be more than happy to sit across the table and compare notes,” Barr says.
State officials, and the general public, may get a closer look at what Barr has obtained soon enough anyway. Within the next two weeks, Barr says he’ll file a court brief identifying the state employee he says was arrested.
Barr filed a public records request with Donovan’s office in November, seeking records related to the alleged arrest.
In a press release issued Tuesday, the Vermont Attorney General's Office said it “immediately conducted a document review and responded to the request stating, ‘the Attorney General’s Office has no records relating to the arrest, detainment or holding of any state employee while traveling overseas in promotion of the Vermont Regional Center and its related projects.’”
This post was updated at 10 a.m. on 3/21/2018