Multiple Bennington County residents are accusing former Rep. Kiah Morris and her husband of hypocrisy, saying the husband threatened others on social media, and the alleged threats were known to state and local authorities in August.
Morris, who is African-American, ended her re-election campaign suddenly on Aug. 24, only 10 days after winning the Democratic nomination in the Bennington 2-2 House district. In her announcement on Facebook she cited “inflammatory” and “dangerous” political discourse on social media as the reason.
In an Aug. 30 radio interview with VPR, she further explained her decision by citing two events from 2016 — a home invasion and swastikas painted on trees at a local woods — as well as more recent online harassment from “white supremacists” during the summer. While the recent harassment claim is being investigated by the attorney general’s office, Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette said in a Sept. 1 press release that his police team investigated “all of the complaints filed by Representative Morris and her husband” and “didn’t feel there was sufficient evidence to charge anyone with a crime.”
Now multiple Bennington County residents are disputing Morris’ explanations, saying they are the ones who were bullied and threatened by Morris’ husband on social media. They further claim that investigations into those alleged threats may be the reason for Morris’ sudden resignation.
In documents sent to True North Reports, screen captures of an online exchange between Morris’ husband, James Lawton, and Bennington County resident Autumn Bucchieri show that Lawton sent Bucchieri a picture of his guns during a dispute over policy matters.
In the exchange with Bucchieri, Lawton flashed his semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun, two semi-automatic pistols and numerous ammunition magazines, including one large-capacity magazine now illegal to purchase in Vermont.
Lawton’s message with the photo reads: “This is what we protect our home with.”
Colleen Harrington, an acquaintance of Bucchieri’s who also lives in Bennington County, told True North the guns photo and other related messages were perceived as threatening and were forwarded to various authorities, including the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office and Bennington Sen. Dick Sears, among others. The messages also were allegedly reviewed by the Vermont State Ethics Commission the week Morris withdrew from her re-election contest.
Moreover, the posts were filed with the Bennington Superior Court Civil Division as part of an unrelated request for stalking relief order against Lawton. According to a Sept. 7 report by VTDigger, Kevin Hoyt, a Bennington resident and Republican candidate for state House in the local 2-1 district, told the court that Lawton’s various postings on social media led some area residents to falsely view him as “a racist and a neo-Nazi.” He said someone even left a written death threat at his residence.
That death threat, which Hoyt reportedly handed over to the Bennington Police Department on Aug. 20, said the following: “The obsessive attacks against the Morris family disgust me! Your [sic] a neo Nazi and a white supremacist. We have guns to [sic], your [sic] pathetic and you will see mine when you least expect it! You better watch your back your [sic] going to get what you have coming to you! YOU DO NOT DESERVE TO LIVE AND THERE IS NO PLACE FOR RACISM HERE!”
Judge David Barra denied the request for a stalking relief order against Lawton, however, saying the author of the death threat note was unknown, and the Facebook screenshots and police report Hoyt provided didn’t meet the standard of evidence for obtaining a no-stalking order, VTDigger reported. Lawton did not appear at the court hearing.
But in an Aug. 15 post on Facebook, Lawton appears to compare Hoyt with Max Misch, a Bennington resident who drew widespread condemnation in 2016 for tweeting a racist cartoon about Rep. Morris, as reported in the Bennington Banner.
Lawton’s Aug. 15 post reads: “Kevin Hoyt has a bizarre obsession for my wife, Kiah Morris, and his level of obsession is equal to that of her Neo-Nazi Stalker Max Mish! They both are sad pathetic little men!”
Seven screen captures added to the Facebook post show Hoyt defending himself against insinuations he is racist and a neo-Nazi.
“I do not know any neonazies … I do not support racism or HATE from anyone. … I do not condone violence by any party,” Hoyt wrote.
The multiple screen captures also show Hoyt debating gun control issues with various Facebook users and expressing frustration with Rep. Morris’ support of gun control legislation.
Hoyt, Bucchieri and Harrington say they strongly repudiate Misch, who may have begun communicating with Morris again over the summer, according to an Aug. 6 post on Lawton’s Facebook page accompanied by screen captures.
Kevin Hoyt and the Morris family
In an interview with True North Reports, Hoyt said he first ran into conflict with the Morris-Lawton family when he contacted the representative about her positions on gun control.
“I was very polite about it — I basically just asked her to debate me,” he said. “And because I asked that question, because I was against her policies, that’s when she started calling me a racist and a white supremacist and a Nazi — all these racial slurs that are offensive to me.”
He continued, “The hypocrisy here is really incredible. … Like everything that Kiah is accusing everybody else of, I think she’s guilty of, and then some. They are the ones that are throwing racial slurs out there. They are the ones that are being discriminatory towards gun owners.”
Hoyt is a strong pro-Second Amendment candidate and TV personality. He held a gun rally over the summer that featured a raffle to give away two AR-15s, which proved controversial with local gun-control advocates.
Hoyt said Morris, had she remained in the Statehouse, would have continued promoting gun control.
“She was quoted on the Statehouse floor in the meeting minutes saying this is the first step in a long-term plan for gun control,” he said. “That’s how I got involved. I emailed her and asked her, ‘What’s the long-term plan?'”
Hoyt characterizes Morris and her more radical supporters as “liberal-supremacists.”
“It’s their way or no way,” he said. “There’s no talking to these people. There’s no working things out or compromise.”
Hoyt said he respects Morris and he denies ever posting insensitive remarks to her.
“Not once has she provided any evidence, which I found extremely weird,” he said. “When I got a death threat, I instantly posted it. … Wouldn’t you do the same?”
According to the press release from Chief Paul Doucette, the Morris family delivered two of their computers to the Bennington Police over the summer to provide evidence of new harassment claims. A few hours after Morris provided the passcodes to police, however, her husband appeared in person at the police station and requested the immediate return of the computers. Instead the computers were sent to the Vermont State Police in Waterbury for analysis.
Hoyt said he thinks Morris’ explanations about her resignation could be called into question based on what’s found on the machines.
“I think that’s exactly why they tried to get their computers back,” he said. “They went, ‘Oh my god, that’s gonna lead back to us.’ … That’s my theory, I’m not afraid to say what I think.”
Both Bennington’s town manager and chief of police did not respond to True North’s request for a timeline regarding the investigation of alleged threats made against the Morris family.
However, Harrington said she thinks the Vermont State Ethics Commission has reviewed various messages Lawton sent to others.
“They were very interested in the threats,” Harrington said.
Summer 2018 meeting minutes of the ethics commission show that commissioners have been discussing “confidential complaints” in executive session. When True North asked Brian Leven, the commission’s executive director, if he discussed any complaints against the Morris family, he neither confirmed nor denied it.
“Because any guidance issued is confidential, unfortunately, I cannot even acknowledge whether or not I was requested to issue such guidance nor whether or not I did issue such guidance,” he wrote in an email response.
Harrington said Lawton’s move to try to get the computers back only fueled suspicions.
“Why would they do that?” she said. “If they wanted a crime solved, you would give them your password immediately and you certainly wouldn’t have gave them the password and then went down and demand the computers back. He might be hiding something on that computer that he doesn’t want forensics to find that he’s worried about.”
Harrington said allegations of racism surrounding the Morris family are unwarranted.
“It’s nothing but a bunch of bull—,” she said. “The only one being racist is her husband who is accusing people of being Nazis. What is that? I mean people he doesn’t even know. He doesn’t know my nationality — I’m half Indian, I’m very dark skinned. I wouldn’t even be accepted by white supremacists.”
She said her community in Bennington is starting to question Morris’ claims. “It’s starting to come out that many people think it’s fake.”
In response to True North’s request for comment on this story, Kiah Morris replied Wednesday: “You can contact our attorney Robert Appel for any comment relating to law enforcement.”
Appel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.