An attorney for Annette Smith has threatened to sue the state attorney general’s office if it doesn’t drop a criminal investigation of the prominent critic of renewable energy projects.
Assistant Attorney General Zachary Chen notified Smith last month in a letter that his office was investigating her on suspicion of unauthorized practice of law in connection with five cases before the Public Service Board.
Smith’s attorney David Sleigh said in a written response Friday that Vermont has no enforceable grounds for such a proceeding and that in any event his client never presented herself as an attorney or behaved as one.
He said the investigation arose from political machinations against his client.
“It’s entirely politically motivated,” Sleigh said in an interview Friday. “The people who have found Annette’s opposition to their desires frustrating are now attempting to use the government as their surrogate to shut her up. That’s about as low-down political as you can get.”
Through her nonprofit Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Smith has opposed numerous renewable energy projects on behalf of those who say they would suffer adverse effects.
The chief of the criminal division at the attorney general’s office said Friday he had received Sleigh’s letter.
“We appreciate and are mindful of the First Amendment issues raised” in the letter, said Jonathan Treadwell. “We’re certain Mr. Sleigh understands we’re proceeding in a fair, impartial and expeditious manner, and we expect to reach a conclusion next week.”
Sleigh said federal law allows citizens to sue anyone who, under the auspices of the state, acts in a way that deprives someone of constitutional rights. Smith’s assistance to opponents of energy projects is protected by her right to free speech, he said.
Such assistance is common in many other contexts, he said, such as domestic abuse cases, where nonlawyers frequently help victims in the court process.
Sleigh also argued that Vermont statute does not define what constitutes unauthorized practice of law or prescribe any penalties, so the attorney general’s office can’t establish that Smith has committed a crime.
Sleigh said he and Smith wouldn’t seek monetary damages in a suit, only an injunction against the state’s attempt to prosecute her. The suit would be filed in U.S. District Court, either in Rutland or Burlington, he said.
The cases in which Chen said Smith is suspected of unauthorized practice of law involved projects proposed by Green Mountain Power, Barton Solar and renewables magnate David Blittersdorf. Smith has said she simply assisted opponents of the projects in representing themselves before the quasi-judicial Public Service Board.
Smith has posted documents on her website constituting a series of dots that invite speculation about the source of the complaint against her.
One of them is a heavily redacted letter to the attorney general’s office setting forth reasons for suspecting Smith of unauthorized practice of law and stating that the town of Morgan had yet to pay her for services rendered. The letter writer — whose name was also redacted — says his or her firm had requested public records from the town.
Smith said the firm Dinse Knapp McAndrew had made a public records request to the town of Morgan for documents pertaining to her and her assistance to the town. Public records requests are themselves a matter of public record, and Smith posted a copy of the firm’s request to the town.
She said the town was planning to donate $2,500 to Vermonters for a Clean Environment but decided not to after it received the law firm’s public records request.
Smith also posted a letter to her from that firm, written a month before the Morgan public records request. The letter writer forbids her to trespass on Blittersdorf’s properties and states that he represented Blittersdorf.
Smith wouldn’t come out and say who she thinks sent the complaint letter, and she declined to associate Blittersdorf with any of it.
Sleigh would not name names either.
“I have my suspicions and deductions, and I think they’re right, but I think the AG should reveal who made the accusation,” Sleigh said. “I don’t know why that’s not public knowledge, or if I were the complainant why I wouldn’t stand up and say, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’”