BENNINGTON — Eight of Vermont’s 14 counties are poised to swear in new sheriffs on Wednesday, including Franklin County’s John Grismore, a former deputy who has been charged with assaulting a man under his department’s custody last August.
The outgoing sheriffs include Peter Newton of Addison County, who was arrested in June on charges of sexually assaulting and unlawfully restraining a woman, and Chad Schmidt of Bennington County, who has acknowledged spending a third of the year in Tennessee since the Covid-19 pandemic reached Vermont in 2020.
These reports have prompted key legislators to propose significant reforms to the way county law enforcement officers do business in Vermont.
“We’ve seen more and more over the last couple of years that sheriffs are not always doing the right thing,” said Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, a leading proponent of the proposals. “We need to create a system where, if a sheriff does the wrong thing, they can be held accountable.”
One bill, S.17, would end the decades-old policy that allows sheriffs to personally pocket up to 5% of the revenue from their department’s contract work — additional pay that can amount to tens of thousands of dollars a year for this elected office. The bill also calls for a study on whether to change the number of sheriffs in Vermont and the boundaries of their territory.
Last week, lawmakers went a step further by introducing a constitutional amendment, Proposal 1, that would enable the Legislature to establish qualifications for sheriffs. Hardy said that she and her colleagues began drafting that measure upon realizing the Vermont Constitution limited the Legislature’s ability to set standards for sheriffs because they’re elected members of another branch of government.
“We needed to change the Constitution,” Hardy said.
The constitutional amendment was introduced just days after the public learned that outgoing Caledonia County Sheriff Dean Shatney gave himself and his entire staff bonuses totaling $400,000 last September, and that state police were investigating the finances of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department and Sheriff-elect Grismore.
The proposal also came on the same day that departing Sheriff Bill Bohnyak, of Orange County, admitted to unprofessional conduct by assigning an unqualified deputy to handle special crime investigations in 2020.
Constitutional amendments are particularly challenging to enact in Vermont, and the process takes at least four years. But both Proposal 1 and S.17 have garnered support from leading lawmakers, suggesting they could gain traction this session. Sponsors include Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden Central; Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Sears, D-Bennington; and Hardy, who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee.
If the proposed constitutional amendment succeeds, Sears said lawmakers would consider new eligibility factors for sheriffs, including residency requirements. The Vermont Constitution does not currently mandate that sheriffs live in the county they’re elected to serve.
Proposal 1 also could enable legislators to change the rules governing whether and how sheriffs can be removed from office. Impeachment — a political process rather than a judicial one — is currently the state’s only recourse while county residents wait for their quadrennial chance to elect a sheriff.
“We’re all kind of stuck in this position,” Sears said of the lack of an alternative to impeachment.
Vermont sheriffs aren’t required to be sworn law enforcement officers. But for those who are, such as Grismore, being decertified by the state Criminal Justice Council wouldn’t remove them from the sheriff’s seat.
Sears and Hardy say they don’t think the state’s sheriff structure is broken, but they believe it has systemic problems that need to be fixed.
“There's not enough accountability,” Hardy said. “There's not enough oversight.”
Reform as common ground
Leaders of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association and the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs acknowledge the challenges that multiple sheriffs’ departments are facing. They say they support the goal of reform.
But the groups don’t see eye to eye with lawmakers on the details.
They oppose, for example, the provision in S.17 that would scrap sheriffs’ ability to keep 5% of money earned through their departments’ contract work with private and public entities. Existing law caps the amount, referred to as an administration fee, at 5% of a contract’s value.
John Campbell, director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, told the Senate Government Operations Committee last week that sheriffs would view this measure as “punitive,” stemming from the actions of a few in their ranks.
“There are people who do an incredible job,” he said, “and because of the actions of a few, they’re all being lumped into this.”
Some sheriffs keep the maximum administration fee to add to their salaries. Others take home a fraction of the money and roll the rest into their departments’ budgets, or they invest the full amount in the department.
Because Vermont sheriffs’ departments are only partially funded by taxpayers, their representatives say, the additional money has helped pay for the law enforcement agencies’ expenses, such as training, uniforms and squad cars.
Windham County Sheriff Mark Anderson, president of the Vermont Sheriffs' Association, said his organization opposes S.17 as it is currently written. He told VTDigger that the bill is “overly broad” and “would not curtail” any of the issues that have surfaced against sheriffs’ departments over the past six months.
Anderson said the sheriffs’ association believes it can work with lawmakers to tailor S.17 in a way that would address their concerns.
“Sheriffs provide critical services whether that's supporting rural communities, the Agency of Human Services, and the Judiciary,” he said in an email. “This work is too important to not get right.”
Anderson said his organization is waiting for feedback from the incoming sheriffs before taking a position on Proposal 1, the proposed constitutional amendment.
Gov. Phil Scott’s administration has not weighed in on either S.17 or Proposal 1. In a written statement, Vermont Department of Public Safety spokesperson Adam Silverman told VTDigger that officials are monitoring the proposals and don’t have any input at this stage of the legislative process.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont welcomes both pieces of legislation, said its lobbyist, Falko Schilling. The proposals demonstrate that lawmakers are trying to solve problems within their power while seeking more oversight through the proposed constitutional amendment, he said.
If the Legislature were to have greater oversight of sheriffs, as envisioned in Proposal 1, Schilling said, the ACLU would want to work with lawmakers on measures to determine whether an elected sheriff is fit to remain in office.
“Removing someone from an elected office like that is a very, very serious thing,” he said. “And the removal will need to be conducted in a way that protects their rights and the rights of the voters.”
Robert Sand, founding director of the Center for Justice Reform at Vermont Law and Graduate School, said he personally backs the proposal to get rid of the sheriffs’ ability to pocket contract money.
“I think that policing for profit is a horrible idea,” said Sand, a former Windsor County state’s attorney who is concluding his tenure as the county’s high bailiff. “It is almost as bad as private companies running correctional institutions.”
Sand said he found Proposal 1 noteworthy because it would place qualifications on who could serve as sheriff, but not other county positions, such as state’s attorney or high bailiff.
“On one level, it does feel a tiny bit unusual to single out one county office for a constitutional amendment,” he said. “But there might be a good reason to do that.”
Sand said he has no qualms about the Legislature’s creating qualifications for sheriffs, explaining that the body has the strongest hand in how the criminal justice system is shaped.
“The good, the bad and the ugly in our criminal legal system belongs to the Legislature,” he said. “That's not typically where we point fingers. We look at prosecutors, we look at police.”
Where’s the sheriff?
A residency requirement, while seemingly minor, would prevent confusion on where elected public officials spend their time while earning taxpayer dollars.
VTDigger reported last year that Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt had made few public appearances in the county since the coronavirus pandemic reached Vermont in 2020 — the same year he and his wife bought a lot and a house in Tennessee and began dissolving their businesses in Vermont.
Public records show that since that period, despite this lack of public engagement, Schmidt has received at least $400,000 in pay and benefits.
In January, during Schmidt’s first interview with a VTDigger reporter since 2021, the sheriff acknowledged spending some 100 days of the year in Tennessee during 2021 and 2022. He emphasized that he was in Bennington County for two-thirds of those years but couldn’t provide public records to support the assertion.
“I don't keep track of people who I come in contact with on a daily basis,” Schmidt, 46, said. “It's not necessarily an official meeting, and even when it is, I don't document it.”
Schmidt, who didn’t seek reelection last year, had headed a 30-person law enforcement agency, one of the largest in southern Vermont. Since 2020, his department has received close to $300,000 each year from county coffers. It has also earned roughly $1 million a year through contract work.
Then-Gov. Jim Douglas appointed Schmidt as sheriff in September 2009, when the incumbent, Gary Forrest, retired. Schmidt won his first sheriff’s race in 2010 and was reelected in 2014 and 2018.
During Schmidt’s first full fiscal year in office, from July 2010 through June 2011, he received a salary of about $65,000, the state salary database for that period shows. In fiscal year 2014-15, when the database began tracking benefits, he earned about $72,000 in salary and $38,000 in benefits.
The annual salary of Vermont sheriffs is set in the state budget, which is passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor. Sheriffs who are not sworn law enforcement officers receive 10% less than sworn officers such as Schmidt, according to the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs. (The sheriff of Chittenden County is paid more than those of other counties, which are less populous.)
During the 2020-21 fiscal year, when Schmidt’s public appearances in Bennington County dropped off, his salary and benefits topped $135,000. Last fiscal year, his total compensation rose to nearly $148,000.
The salary database does not yet have information for the current fiscal year, but state law appropriated an annual salary of $94,000 starting last July 3 for sheriffs at Schmidt’s level.
Schmidt has augmented his state salary by collecting an administration fee for contracts.
During his first full calendar year as sheriff, in 2010, the Bennington County Sheriff’s Department earned $832,000 in contract work, Schmidt said in a response to a VTDigger public records request. That year, the sheriff said, he collected an administration fee of 2.04%, equivalent to $17,000.
Between 2010 and 2021, the sheriff’s disclosures show, his department’s annual revenue from contracts reached a peak of $1.56 million in 2019 and never dipped below that first year’s earnings.
During this 12-year period, Schmidt said he took between 1.85% and 2.69% in contract fees. In 2021, he upped this to 4.1%, or $48,000 from contracts worth $1.17 million.
The sheriff did not respond to a public records request for the department’s contract revenue in 2022 and the amount he collected in administration fees.
Schmidt said the amount he takes in administration fees depends on factors such as the financial stability of his department. He said he also looks at the salaries of other law enforcement leaders in the area, specifically police chiefs and Vermont State Police captains and lieutenants, who he considers comparable to sheriffs.
Public records and personal documents
In late December, VTDigger asked Schmidt for a variety of public records that could show him working in the county during the past three years. The requested documents included a copy of his official 2022 work calendar, indicating his in-person engagements in Bennington County, and his email and text messages with deputies regarding his travel dates to and from Tennessee between 2020 and last year.
In a brief email on Jan. 3, Schmidt said he had “no responsive documents” to the work calendar, email and text requests.
VTDigger subsequently asked Schmidt for “any records” from the sheriff’s department showing when he worked in Bennington County over the past three years, including those contained in private electronic accounts.
The state Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that the Vermont Public Records Act's definition of “public record” includes digital documents stored in private accounts.
Again, Schmidt came back empty-handed. “The only records I have are personal documents that are out of the scope of a public records request,” he said in a Jan. 9 email.
Schmidt instead presented VTDigger with personal documents from 2021 and 2022: New York toll road activity for what he described as his vehicle and his credit card billing statements.
The tollway billing shows the vehicle regularly entered and exited interstate toll points in Albany, New York, a route Schmidt said he traveled between Vermont and Tennessee.
Pressed on how the documents prove he was in the vehicle or ultimately in Bennington County working, Schmidt said a reporter was “splitting hairs.”
“I think an electronic footprint is pretty solid evidence,” he said of the toll logs.
After the interview on Jan. 12, Schmidt also sent VTDigger what he described as a random selection of his personal credit card billing statements from 2021 and 2022 that show purchases in Bennington County.
The statements, which altogether cover a period of about eight months, include transactions with merchants in Bennington, Pownal, Manchester and Arlington.
When asked to recall some of his interactions with Bennington County community members, the sheriff said he’d attended Bennington gatherings in December 2021 and this January to pay his respects to two local residents who died.
Schmidt added that in-person meetings were discouraged during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly for people who were vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“Maybe that might explain my resistance then?” he said of public engagements. “You don't know what medical problems I might have, right? And I'm under no obligation to tell you, right?”
Schmidt also said that, in his current term, he has delegated some of his work to deputies to prepare them for his departure. He said that included letting the sheriff’s department spokesperson address widespread but unfounded rumors in 2020 that Schmidt was being investigated by federal authorities, and allowing his top deputy to deal with the department’s contract clients.
He acknowledged these could have contributed to his perceived lack of presence in the community.
“I've taken a step back, admittedly, from those types of duties to try to teach people here how to manage the place when I'm not here,” Schmidt said. “But I was (copied) on all the emails. I know what’s going on, and I’m here two-thirds of the time.”
As elected public officials, sheriffs don’t fill out timesheets. As such, sheriffs don’t accrue sick or vacation time based on the number of hours they work. They make their own decisions about how much time off to take each year, according to the Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs.
“It should be basically an honor system,” said Annie Noonan, the department’s labor relations and operations director. “Take what you reasonably think is fair and what your work schedule would dictate.”
Noonan, second-in-command of the department, said state’s attorneys and sheriffs typically don’t take a lot of leave days because they run busy offices.
Ultimately, nobody is marking their office attendance. They’re answerable to the people who elect them — or decide not to reelect them.
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