Monday April 29, 2013

MONTPELIER -- Two days after Hurricane Irene's remnants devastated much of Vermont, with bodies still missing and residents stranded in their homes, two Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department game wardens were given a special assignment: to rescue houseplants belonging to Secretary of Natural Resources Deb Markowitz.

Accounts of the 2011 mission varied. Markowitz and officials still employed by her agency said it was a matter of helping out amid the chaos, that state employees who showed up at the flooded state office complex in Waterbury were grabbing whatever and helping whomever in a hectic salvage operation.

Three former employees of the agency painted a different picture: of workers looking on in dismay as uniformed game wardens entered offices from which most civilian employees were or would soon be barred, carried out Markowitz's plants, loaded them into a state truck and delivered them to the secretary's home, 14 miles away in Montpelier.

One current employee, Maj. Dennis Reinhardt, second in command among the state's game wardens, said, "I understand why it doesn't look good."

Up for debate is whether the incident was one of simple kindness among colleagues -- though the public paid for the wardens' staff time and travel costs -- or two senior public officials -- Markowitz and Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry -- using their positions for personal benefit in a time of crisis: for her, saving the plants she loved; for him, currying favor with the boss.

If the latter interpretation is applied, the incident could be seen as violating rules laid out on a Department of Human Resources Web page, prohibiting state workers from "using their positions to obtain special privileges" and "using state personnel, property or equipment for private use."

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo fired Emergency Management Director Steven Kuhr after learning that Kuhr called a Suffolk County crew to remove a fallen tree from his driveway after Superstorm Sandy.

Markowitz said in an interview that the wardens hadn't yet been called out by the state police, so they likely wouldn't have been deployed to search the Mendon Brook for 24-year-old Michael G. Garofano, whose body would be found three weeks later, or the White River, where corpses washed away from a Rochester cemetery were still floating downstream.

But the Agency of Natural Resources had plenty on its own plate: caring for a washed-out fish hatchery in Roxbury; preserving records from its own offices; salvaging what game wardens' firearms and uniforms could be saved from a flooded basement armory at the Waterbury complex.

Tom Decker, a former Fish & Wildlife chief of operations who recently left state government for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said of the plant-moving mission: "It was not our finest hour because, frankly, there was a lot of other stuff that needed to get done."

Half a dozen plants were involved, including two small trees, one of which was a dracaena majoris from Markowitz's childhood, Decker said.

One question is whether Markowitz asked to have her plants moved or hinted broadly enough that that would be a good idea that Berry got the message to order the wardens to do the work.

"I never asked anyone to move my plants, let's just make that really clear," she said at the beginning of an interview 20 months after Irene.

Later, she said she had spoken with Berry about them. She told him that "one of the things that made me sad about this was, you know, I didn't have a minute to think about some of my plants, which I've had since I've been a kid, that were in that building, that would die, as a result of being stuck there and us being kept out of the building. ... You know, my mom died when I was a kid and one of the trees was hers."

Berry's account shifted somewhat in the course of an interview and a series of emails to The Associated Press over several days. In an April 18 interview, he said he didn't recall Markowitz making the request. By April 23, he was more definitive: "As I stated earlier, the Secretary had no knowledge that the plants were moved until after the fact," he wrote.

Decker kept a daily log of his and some of his colleagues' activities. He couldn't provide an exact date for this entry but said it came in the early days after the Aug. 28, 2011, storm: "ANR Sec. had Comm. Berry have game wardens move house plants out of her office."

Berry said the decision was his. "This was my decision and my responsibility," he told the AP.

Asserting that no special privilege was afforded the agency secretary, Berry said that on the day the plants were moved, other employees were free to come and go at the complex to retrieve personal belongings. It was not until later that employees weren't allowed to enter the buildings out of fear for their health, he said.

Berry's account of when the do-not-enter order was made didn't appear to square with Markowitz's reference to "us being kept out of the building" in her comments to Berry about the plants before they were moved.

Berry told Decker after the plants were moved that another senior employee had congratulated him, saying, "'Those were good points for you. That was a good piece of business for you.' The commissioner (Berry) was feeling good about it," Decker said.

Markowitz said she was surprised and "tremendously grateful" when the plants arrived at her house. "When I called him (Berry) to thank him, he said, 'I wanted to make your day,' and he did."

Editor's Note:: Corrections were made to this report after it appeared in print.