NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Police served search warrants Monday at Bennington Subaru and the home of its owner, Thomas Lyons, seeking evidence as part of an ongoing criminal investigation, according to court documents and a town official.
That town official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said it involves an alleged prostitution ring. That information was confirmed by other sources.
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette confirmed Tuesday that his department served the search warrants on Monday as part of an investigation into possible criminal activity. Police removed property from both Lyons' Bank Street residence and the 527 North Bennington Road car dealership he owns that is believed to be evidence of criminal activity, Doucette said.
The investigation has been ongoing for about one month, according to Doucette. He declined further comment.
As of Tuesday evening, no charges had been filed against Lyons. Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage said she could not comment on what, if any charges, the state is looking to file.
"We're in the middle of the investigation so there is nothing I can share," Marthage said. "We're only in the initial stages of being involved."
Lyons' attorney, David Silver, with the Bennington-based firm Barr, Sternberg, Moss, Lawrence & Silver, said any allegation of a prostitution ring "is ridiculous."
"It's highly irresponsible and unprofessional, and I would say reckless, for anybody involved in this investigation to have made those allegations before the state's attorney has even reviewed the evidence and decided if charges will be filed," Silver said Tuesday evening.
"Tom Lyons is a loyal, generous, caring friend to me and has been for many years and I am proud to represent him. He's a devoted family man, he's a generous employer. He's given countless hours of his time to charitable organizations in this town. He's given very generously of his own income to many, many charities and good causes here," Silver added. "He's earned the right to be presumed innocent. I can tell you, there is no prostitution ring. Nothing even close to that. Tom is fully cooperating with the authorities in this investigation and we ask everyone to just keep an open mind."
The Banner requested on Tuesday copies of the two search warrants and the supporting affidavits from Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division. Affidavits, which are part of a search warrant application, are reviewed by a judge who then determines whether police provided sufficient information for a search warrant to be granted. The affidavits are expected to provide more information about the investigation and what police are seeking.
As a result of the Banner's request, Silver and Bennington County Chief Deputy State's Attorney Christina Rainville each filed separate motions to have the warrants sealed.
"The State recognizes The Banner's legitimate interest in obtaining the search warrants generally. However, these are pre-indictment warrants in the midst of an investigation, and there is no First Amendment right nor a common law right to pre-indictment warrants," Rainville wrote in her motion.
According to the motion, the search warrants served at Lyons' home and business were part of a package of three warrants. The third has yet to be executed, however.
The state is trying to locate the woman who is the target of the third search warrant in order to seize property discussed in the warrant, according to Rainville's motion. Releasing the warrants' supporting affidavits without redacting information about the woman would hinder the ongoing investigation.
However, Rainville also said the state would "be satisfied if the paragraphs that refer to the individual who will be subject to the third warrant are redacted and only the remaining portions of the warrants are released."
Judge Cortland T. Corsones ruled in favor of a temporary redaction. He also indicated that a hearing would be scheduled if any party objected. A hearing was scheduled for today at 4 p.m. following Silver's objection.
In his own motion, Silver noted that charges have not been filed and cited the state's own assertion that the ongoing investigation "would be jeopardized by making these documents public."
Additionally, citing state statute, Silver said records compiled by police about an individual during an investigation are exempt as public records.
"These search warrant affidavits fall under this definition as they are records compiled in the course of a criminal investigation," Silver wrote.
Finally, Silver cited a 2001 Vermont Supreme Court case in which the Court upheld that "the presumptive right of access to court records, including pre-indictment search warrant materials, may be overcome only by a showing that a substantial threat exists to the interests of effective law enforcement, or individual privacy and safety."
The state indicated the search warrants could thwart the investigation, and, "the threat to the privacy of Mr. Lyons is obvious," Silver wrote.
Lyons is a well-known member of the community. He is a member of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors as well other local nonprofit groups.