David Blittersdorf, CEO of AllEarth Renewables, is suing Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie’s campaign for defamation.
The case, which was filed in Chittenden Superior Court Thursday by the Burlington law firm Dinse, Knapp & McAndrews, alleges the Dubie campaign has falsely accused Blittersdorf of “corruption.”
Brian Dubie, Friends of Brian Dubie and Corry Bliss, the lieutenant governor’s campaign manager, are all named in the lawsuit.
Ritchie Berger, Blittersdorf’s attorney, alleges that the defendants, “in their reckless zeal to impugn” Sen. Peter Shumlin, Dubie’s Democratic opponent, “have maliciously chosen to attack Mr. Blittersdorf with false and defamatory statements.”
Berger writes that the statements have been injurious to Blittersdorf’s business and his reputation, and that they have caused “actual harm,” including damage to his reputation, standing in the community, humiliation, embarrassment and mental pain.
In an interview, Berger said Blittersdorf has no interest in being embroiled in politics.
“He has a First Amendment right to support any candidate or cause he believes in,” Berger said. “Dave simply wanted Dubie to stop defaming him that’s all he wanted. Their response was to continue. His options were to let them continue or stand up for his rights and that’s what he’s done. It’s just unnecessary and unfortunate that the Dubie camp has allowed Mr. Bliss to conduct the campaign in that way.”
Blittersdorf is seeking punitive and compensatory damages. He has also asked for a jury trial.
Read the lawsuit: Blittersdorf v. Dubie and Bliss
Calls and e-mails to the Dubie campaign for comment were not returned.
Here is a summary of the events that led to the legal showdown. Shumlin appointed Blittersdorf to the state’s Clean Energy Development Fund Board, and Blittersdorf eventually received $4.3 million in state tax credits for his firm after a bidding process. He also gave $8,000 to Shumlin and $20,000 in contributions to Green Mountain Future, a 527 nonprofit that has been running ads attacking Dubie’s pro-Yankee stance. Shumlin hadn’t received donations before he appointed Blittersdorf to the board – at that point he hadn’t decided whether he would run — and when the conflict became apparent, Shumlin asked Blittersdorf in a publicly released letter to resign from the board, which he did.
Since September, when the gubernatorial campaigns began in earnest, the Dubie campaign has e-mailed press releases to media outlets accusing Shumlin of “trading” $28,000 in “campaign donations” for tax credits to Blittersdorf.
The lawsuit cites a story published in the Burlington Free Press that quotes Bliss accusing Shumlin of “pay-to-play” politics.
Berger’s complaint also refers to language posted on the www.shumlinethics.com Web site, which the Dubie campaign launched last week, including quotes from Bliss about an alleged conflict of interest.
The allegation is one of the “Top Eleven Ethical Lapses” the Dubie campaign posted.
Bliss stated that Shumlin “appointed one of his largest campaign contributors to a board where he used his position to write polices that resulted in millions of dollars of tax breaks for himself.” Bliss called this a “clear conflict of interest.” He called for Shumlin to return $28,000 in “campaign contributions.”
Bliss says in the Web post:
This is a shocking level of corruption. Once again, Peter Shumlin is not being honest. Trading more than $4 million in taxpayer money for campaign donations once again shows Peter Shumlin will say or do anything to get elected.
In the Burlington Free Press article that appeared on Oct. 21, Bliss asked: “Was this pay-to-play? Is this a deal Peter [Shumlin] struck?”
Berger writes that “these purported rhetorical questions falsely accuse Mr. Blittersdorf of unethical conduct.”
On Monday, Blittersdorf phoned Dubie, according to the complaint, and asked that he “stop impugning his character, but Defendant Dubie chose, instead, to continue publishing defamatory statements about Mr. Blittersdorf.”
The next day, Blittersdorf’s attorneys wrote to the defendants, asking them to remove the statements from the Web site. According to the complaint, the defendants released the letter to the media and reasserted the “false and defamatory statements.” The Web site language remained intact.
Berger’s complaint alleges that the defendants named in the suit acted negligently or with actual malice because they knew the statements were false, or “they made them with reckless disregard of whether they were true or false.”
Vermont Law School associate professor Donald M. Kreis, a First Amendment expert, said defamation lawsuits are difficult to win in the United States, particularly when they are lodged by public figures, like Blittersdorf.
However, Kreis said the complaint is “not frivolous.” The “pay to play” and “corruption” charges are “potentially sanctionable,” he said.
Kreis, who is a supporter and small contributor to Shumlin, said though Blittersdorf’s lawsuit isn’t directly connected to the Shumlin campaign, the timing of the lawsuit is likely related to the impending election on Tuesday.
Kreis is a member of the law school’s Institute for Energy and the Environment. He recently stepped down from the board of Renewable Energy Vermont. He is a member of the VTdigger.org board.
Editor’s note: Ritchie Berger returned a call for comment on Friday morning. His quotes were added at 12:13 Oct. 29, 2010.