Saturday May 11, 2013

THORNS to the former president and trustee of Bennington School Inc., his son and son-in-law, and another man who defrauded the state of Vermont and the federal government for a total of $4.3 million. Matthew Merritt Jr., 81, of West Stockbridge Mass.; his son, Matthew Merritt III, 54, of Lenox, Mass., and Raymond Crowley, 58, the elder Merritt’s son-in-law, of Great Barrington, Mass., this week agreed to plea deals in civil and criminal cases with fines and possible prison time connected with Bennington School, a for-profit private corporation that operates a residential program in Bennington for troubled boys and girls. A fourth defendant, Jeffrey LaBonte, 59, was former chief financial officer of the school. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the men fraudulently overcharged $3.6 million to the state of Vermont, which placed troubled students at the school and paid for their tuition and expenses through Medicaid. Sixty percent of that amount came from federal money, while the rest was funded directly from Vermont. The proposed plea agreement fell through Thursday when a federal judge ordered a psychiatric evaluation for the elder Merritt. ROSES to Southern Vermont College philanthropy students, who this week concluded a spring course by awarding grant funds of $1,600 each to three local community organizations: The Center for Restorative Justice; the Friends of Hiland Hall Gardens; and Southwestern Vermont Health Care. The course, which was designed by SVC Professor Jeb Gorham, is funded by The Bank of Bennington. One laudable purpose of the class is to get students engaged thinking about how they can give back to their communities.

ROSES to area firefighters from the Bennington Rural, Pownal and Shaftsbury Fire Departments who battled a forest fire Monday in Woodford, near Prospect Mountain ski area. The quick and well-organized response contained the fire to 13 acres and kept it from spreading. The responders used all-terrain vehicles to access the remote area where the fire was started, likely as a controlled burn to clear brush. THORNS to those who ignored the burn ban in effect at the time.

ROSES to several area high school sports teams (and their coaches) that are showing great results at this early point in the season. Examples: Mount Anthony Union High School boys lacrosse team, now 7-1 for the season; Burr and Burton Academy girls tennis team, now 8-0; and BBA’s girls lacrosse team, now 6-1.

ROSES to area licensed massage therapists who found the silver lining on Tuesday’s raid of two Bennington spa businesses as part of a human trafficking and prostitution investigation. There is hope the investigation will prompt the state of Vermont to begin regulating massage therapy. Currently, Vermont and Oklahoma are the only two states that have taken no steps to regulate massage therapy, according to the American Massage Therapy Association. Laura Bull, a massage therapist who runs Massage For You in Bennington, told the Banner "While this is unfortunate, this could be a huge opportunity to push for regulation. When these things happen -- because this is not the first time in the history of massage, maybe in Bennington -- it’s something to be both celebrated and commiserated." We agree that it’s time the state of Vermont began regulating the practice and requiring licensing of practitioners.

~Michelle Karas