The state attorney general’s office has opened an investigation into criminal complaints against a prominent champion of Vermonters who are adversely affected by renewable development.
The attorney general’s office is investigating whether Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, has practiced law without a license — a charge with penalties left entirely to the court’s discretion.
Smith says the complaints that prompted the AG’s investigation are politically motivated.
Attorneys who have argued against Smith’s clients say she gives bad advice, unconstrained by the sanctions licensed attorneys would incur for similar behavior.
Smith says the AG’s investigation “is very intimidating.”
“I don’t know what to do. I think our work’s being shut down,” Smith said. “I believe this has the potential to shut down my organization of 16 years. It clearly falls under the definition of harassment.”
Residents who live near planned and existing renewable projects have claimed she’s their only advocate.
Smith said she represents people who too frequently have nowhere else to turn. Renewable energy developers hire talented attorneys against whom landowners near project sites have no other way of successfully representing themselves.
Many of these cases involve people who can’t afford a lawyer, and who didn’t want to become involved in legal proceedings to protect their interests, she said. Lawyers know it’s impossible to fight renewable energy developers, Smith said, and won’t take on affected landowners’ cases anyway.
“Anybody who does this with a lawyer has wasted tens of thousands of dollars,” she said. “The reason I’m doing this is so people have a voice without bankrupting themselves.”
The attorney general’s office would not offer comment on the case.
“There is a matter under investigation by the criminal division, and we can’t comment on it further, and we never comment on ongoing criminal investigation,” said John Treadwell, Chief of the Criminal Division at the AG’s office.
Practicing law without a license is a charge that has rarely been prosecuted in Vermont, Treadwell said. It carries potentially severe penalties. “It is punished as criminal contempt of the Vermont Supreme Court, and is potentially punishable by fine or imprisonment or both, in the court’s discretion,” Treadwell said.
“In the court’s discretion,” Treadwell said, means there are no maximum defined penalties.
Assistant Attorney General Zachary Chen named five cases in a letter notifying Smith of the investigation, and two attorneys were involved in both cases. Smith said one of them had previously accused her of practicing law without a license. Both have given Smith reason to believe they’ve sought to instigate an investigation against her, she said.
Joslyn Wilschek is one of the attorneys, and in a previous Public Service Board hearing she told hearing officers that Smith had been in that instance practicing law without a license.
Non-lawyers aid participants in legal and other proceedings all the time to good effect, Wilschek said, but Smith represents herself as having training that she actually lacks.
“She gives legal advice to landowners, and she drafts their filings to the Public Service Board, and I think it’s a real disservice, because she puts herself out there as having the knowledge of a lawyer, when she doesn’t,” Wilschek said.
Wilschek said she didn’t file a complaint against Smith with the AG’s office, but said she supports it and said that if asked, and if her clients consented, she’d testify Smith had done what she’s been accused of. Wilschek said her remarks reflect only her personal observation, and not her clients or their positions.
Based on what she’s seen, such charges have no basis in political motives, Wilschek said. “I disagree with people all the time — that’s what a lawyer does — but when someone does something this egregious, it’s not political, it’s protecting the public,” she said. “When you see someone putting themselves out there like a lawyer, it’s a real disservice to people who don’t understand the training a lawyer needs.”
People who Smith has assisted say they have no other effective advocate, and say they’re shut out of the hearing process for renewable projects by the excessive legality of the proceedings.
“What she does is she provides citizens — normal, everyday citizens in the state of Vermont — with a possibility of having any chance at participating in the Public Service Board process,” said Christine Lang.
Lang, with her husband and with Smith’s assistance, is attempting to persuade the Public Service Board to assess penalities on prospective wind developer Travis Belisle for constructing a meteorological tower without a permit. The met tower is a precursor to the wind turbine development project, and she says a permit filed with the board would have given the public advance notice.
State agencies and developers are well-represented by lawyers at Public Service Board hearings, while ordinary citizens are shut out of the process, Lang said.
“I think it’s a witch hunt to distract her from the work she’s trying to do to help citizens, because she’s the only one out there who’s helping citizens,” Lang said. “Does that make sense I should have to have an attorney to participate in what is supposed to be a public process?
“This is why this entire process is completely broken,” she said. “It is a developer-run process run by the developers and their lawyers, and they are getting everything they want, and they are going to destroy this state.”
Leslie Cadwell, another attorney who has represented wind developer David Blittersdorf, says Smith has led her clients to bad ends. Cadwell participated in a case against Smith that complaints with the AG’s office have highlighted as representative of Smith’s alleged illegal behavior.
“As a result of Annette’s participation in a case she was involved with before the Public Service Board, the town of Irasburg has violated open meetings law twice, and has admitted it,” Cadwell said.
Professional ethical standards lawyers abide by prohibit this kind of behavior, Cadwell said.
“If Annette wants to represent people in the Public Service Board process, or advise people about how to participate in the Public Service Board process, she ought to go to law school,” Cadwell said. “Or, in Vermont, she can actually do a four-year clerk program where she can learn how to be a lawyer and understand how to ethically represent her clients in courts.”
Vermont is one of few states that allows lawyers to work as clerks in lieu of law school as a means of studying to become an attorney, Cadwell said.
Cadwell said that she did not file complaints against Smith with the attorney general’s office.