The only remaining issue in VTDigger’s legal battle — which resulted in the public release of records tied to the removal of the leader of Vermont’s largest prison — has been settled, with the state writing a $36,000 check to the online news organization.
The money covers VTDigger’s costs and attorneys fees in bringing the lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections, which stemmed from the denial of a public records request more than two years ago.
According to the Vermont Public Records Act, parties can seek attorneys fees in a public records lawsuit if they have “substantially” prevailed.
The payment to VTDigger was the result of a negotiated agreement between the news organization and the state without the need for a court hearing to resolve the matter.
The Vermont Journalism Trust, VTDigger’s parent organization, had been seeking documents since September 2018 related to the dismissal of Ed Adams, the former superintendent of the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, who had previously been accused of sexual harassment.
The state had repeatedly blocked the news organization from obtaining those documents, prompting the lawsuit.
Attorney Stephen Coteus, representing the news organization, said Monday that the state has already turned over the $36,000 check.
“The agreement settles the dispute about public records that was litigated, and it only applies to the specific request about Ed Adams,” said Coteus, a lawyer at the law firm Tarrant, Gillies & Richardson of Montpelier.
“At the end of the day, it was a success, because the records we sought were turned over,” he said of the lawsuit. “Ultimately, that is the goal of any public records request.”
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Exactly why Adams left the Springfield prison superintendent’s post was not revealed in the records that were made public after the lawsuit was filed.
“There is no single, clear answer,” Coteus said.
Adams, in an earlier statement to VTDigger, wrote that he had been considering leaving the Springfield position for some time.
“I had lost faith in the manner in which central office was supporting facility operations,” he wrote, “which in my opinion, prioritized short-term emergencies to the exclusion of any long-term vision. I expressed this intent months before any allegations were made against me.”
Assistant Attorney General Jared Bianchi, who represented the state corrections department in the case, could not be reached Monday for comment. Lauren Jandl, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, referred comment on Monday to the state Department of Corrections.
A response Monday from Rachel Feldman, a corrections department spokesperson, was not immediately available.
The law firm representing VTDigger will get about $16,000 for its fees from the payout by the state, and the remaining $20,000 will reimburse VTDigger for its costs, according to Anne Galloway, the news organization’s founder and editor.
Galloway said that, in the end, the records VTDigger received after filing the suit did not reveal all that much, which makes it all the more puzzling why the Vermont Attorney General’s Office did not agree to release them earlier.
“In fact, even Ed Adams said, ‘Look, you know, I’m ready to give up the records,’” Galloway said. “It seems to me the AG’s office was kind of tilting at windmills here and had no real reason to withhold the records in the first place and really wasted taxpayers’ dollars, in my view.”
That agreement revealed Adams had been demoted from Springfield superintendent to a probation officer. But, according to that deal, Adams’ rate of pay stayed almost the same at $45 an hour, or about $94,000 annually, much higher than a typical probation officer.
The reasoning behind that demotion, though, was not revealed.
Additional documents the state made public after the suit was filed showed several investigations into Adams’ conduct. The records detailed several claims by corrections staff about Adams. Those complaints included that he spoke with a lisp when referring to a gay inmate and talked of getting “hard” when firing people.
In the documents, Adams denied many of the allegations and, in some cases, reported that he did not recall making the statements leading to the complaints.
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Prior to his job at the Springfield prison, Adams was superintendent of the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility in South Burlington, the state’s only women’s prison. In that position, a sexual harassment investigation into his conduct resulted in the state paying a $86,000 settlement to the female corrections officer making the complaint, according to a report from the Burlington Free Press.
After VTDigger sued, the Vermont State Employees’ Association submitted a motion on Adams’ behalf, seeking to keep the block on the release of the documents. Adams and the union later dropped their opposition to release of the records, though those decisions came after Michael Smith, Agency of Human Services secretary, wrote a letter to Adams, informing him that he planned to release the documents.
At one point in the case, a contention by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office regarding the Vermont Public Records Act drew a sharp response from Washington County Judge Timothy Tomasi. At issue was a claim related to a particular exemption to the Vermont Public Records Act that the state tried to invoke to keep some of the information from being released publicly.
The state had argued that an exemption to the act also extended to documents deemed by “rule” confidential by the state Department of Human Resources.
Tomasi disagreed with the state.
“These are internal operating policies of the department,” Tomasi wrote in a decision. “There is no indication that they were intended to operate as generally applicable exemptions under the PRA [Public Records Act].”
Coteus, VTDigger’s attorney, said Monday that, since the Vermont Supreme Court has not ruled on that matter, Tomasi’s decision will likely continue to influence public records cases in the future.
“It did establish at least one judge’s legal opinion about a defense that I understand that the state has raised in the past,” Coteus said.
Lia Ernst, senior staff attorney with the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, was not a party to the VTDigger case but has litigated public records lawsuits, including some that resulted in payout of attorneys fees and costs to the entities who brought suit.
Ernst said Monday that the ability for a “requester” to recover the costs is an “absolutely critical” part added to the law, “because agencies in the past could wrongly deny public records requests and feel generally confident that the requester would not sue.”
In one ACLU case involving a large payout, Burlington resident Reed Doyle wanted to review body camera footage from the city police department after witnessing officers in a confrontation with a group of youths in 2017. The Vermont Supreme Court ultimately decided in Doyle’s favor, with the city of Burlington later agreeing to pay the ACLU of Vermont $65,000 in attorney fees.
“These are not inexpensive cases to litigate,” Ernst said, “and the average public requester can’t afford the $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 to hire an attorney to litigate these cases.”
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