Harassment investigation report due Monday

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BENNINGTON — Details of a Vermont State Police investigation into alleged harassment and threats against former Rep. Kiah Morris, who resigned last year citing racially motivated online harassment, will be released on Monday morning in Bennington.

Attorney General T.J. Donovan ordered the probe in late August, after Morris, who is African American, expressed dissatisfaction in interviews with the investigative work of the Bennington Police Department into her complaints, and that no one had been charged with a crime over a two-year period.

Bennington lawmakers also had asked the AG to step in to determine whether enough had been done to investigate the complaints and whether more needs to be done to prevent similar harassment of others.

Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion, and Reps. Timothy Corcoran and Mary Morrissey said in an email at the time that they would ask Donovan and Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd, who oversees the police department, to "investigate the entire matter to determine whether laws were broken; and if so, determine why they were not enforced."

The lawmakers said they were "further requesting that the Office of Attorney General suggest any laws that could or need to be added, changed or modified and at the same time do not violate the constitutional right to free speech."

The local investigation did not find enough evidence to charge anyone with a crime, according to BPD Chief Paul Doucette and State's Attorney Erica Marthage. They said last year that they had consulted about the complaints and also with personnel at the AG's office about the matter.

Doucette has defended the local investigation, saying in part, "All of the complaints filed by Representative Morris and her husband James [Lawton] have been investigated appropriately and efficiently."

He also released a timeline of incidents and reports in early September concerning the complaints, which he contended illustrate that the department did its job correctly.

Delegation notified

The Bennington County legislative delegation was notified by the AG's Office Friday of the 11 a.m. news conference at the Congregation Beth El administrative building on Adams Street and the lawmakers were invited to attend. Donovan will be in town to present the findings.

Sears said Friday that he will attend to represent the Senate and other Vermont lawmakers are expected.

Morris will attend, but won't comment until afterward, her husband said.

Doucette also said Friday he plans to attend the conference, but declined to comment until after the findings are presented.

Ends campaign

Morris announced Aug. 24 that she would end her campaign for re-election to the House from the Bennington 2-2 District, where she was unopposed for re-election to a third term following the Aug. 14 primary.

Local Democrats then chose Select Board member Jim Carroll to replace her on the Nov. 6 ballot, and Carroll was elected to the House.

Shortly after Morris announced she would end her campaign, Donovan said that he had "opened an active, ongoing investigation into complaints of online threats made against State Representative Kiah Morris."

He said the AG's Office would work with the Vermont State Police and computer forensic experts "to ensure a thorough and complete investigation of this matter."

The Bennington Department does not have a similar computer forensic team.

In late September, Morris announced she would not finish her term as planned but would resign immediately, citing continued online harassment and a need to help Lawton, who was then about to have open-heart surgery.

Morris first cited racially motivated threats and online harassment during the 2016 election season. She said that had intensified again in August 2018.

Since the news of her resignation, Morris has been the subject of several regional, national and even international media reports, by The New York Times, USA Today, Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, the BBC and others.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien     


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