In Vermont, thorn in side of powerful faces criminal probe
MONTPELIER — Annette Smith has been fighting the power for more than 15 years, tenaciously opposing energy projects she believes harm the environment or quality of life in Vermont.
Now she is the target of a criminal investigation into whether her efforts constitute unlicensed legal work — but her allies say her only offense is too often annoying a green power industry that boasts deep pockets.
"Even though this is a preposterous charge, and will likely be thrown out, its purpose will be fulfilled: to chill anyone's free speech rights who dares to question the powerful in Montpelier," attorney Deborah Bucknam wrote in an op-ed.
Smith's efforts to give towns and local groups greater say in large-scale renewable energy projects are meant to "help those who cannot afford the high priced lawyers the developers can," wrote Bucknam, who has represented critics of a wind project in northeastern Vermont.
Smith, 59, uses a small solar installation to power her home in Danby, where she milks a cow by hand and defies Vermont winters by growing citrus — limes and grapefruit — in a greenhouse. But she has been an outspoken critic of what she sees as the negative effects of large-scale wind and solar projects: wildlife deaths and noise pollution from wind turbines, visual blight from sprawling solar arrays.
She won't comment on the specifics of the allegations — "Anything I say can be used against me," she said — but called the investigation "a government-sponsored SLAPP suit," using an acronym meaning "strategic lawsuit against public participation."
The complaint filed with the state attorney general's office alleges Smith has improperly provided legal advice to parties before the state Public Service Board, a court-like regulatory panel where utilities and project developers often hire lawyers at $250 per hour or more. Many residents and small towns say they don't have money like that, effectively barring them from full participation in board cases.
By helping draft filings and giving advice to those making appearances before the board, Smith is "squarely within Vermont's definition of the unauthorized practice of law," according to a copy of the complaint letter sent to the attorney general that Smith provided to The Associated Press. Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell vouched for the letter's authenticity.
The complaint portrays Smith as usually working indirectly with those before the board, though it says on at least one occasion she attempted to directly participate because she wanted to "streamline the process," according to a transcript of a 2014 hearing on a wind turbine in Vergennes. Otherwise the hearing could be "very slow" while she consulted with a couple bothered by the turbine on "questions to ask and things to say," the letter said.
The complaint letter was partially redacted and Treadwell would not say who had sent it. But other documents and a footnote in the letter point to a law firm representing David Blittersdorf, a major solar and wind developer.
The letter refers to the minutes of town meetings last year in Morgan — where Blittersdorf has proposed a solar project near Lake Seymour, a prime recreation spot — that discuss "attorney compensation" for Smith. Town officials called the entry an error based on a misunderstanding.
Blittersdorf did not return calls seeking comment. The lawyer representing him said in an email Friday he could not comment.
Richard Saudek, a former Public Service Board chairman who has also appeared before it in private practice, called Smith "extremely knowledgeable." But he noted that there can be pitfalls to going into a legal proceeding with amateur advice.
"It's like people who are caught up in a divorce case," Saudek said. "They go to a party and they get all kinds of advice from their friends as to what they should do. Some of it may be good and some of it may be not so good."
Unlicensed legal work is neither a misdemeanor nor a felony under Vermont law, but is in a special class of contempt against the state Supreme Court, with any penalty at the court's discretion.
Smith maintains she has never held herself out to be a lawyer. She does not bill those she advises but welcomes donations to her nonprofit, Vermonters for a Clean Environment, which has also helped oppose large farm and mine expansions as well as additives in public water supplies.
Former Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, who has been advising residents of a town where a large-scale wind power project is planned, said Smith does valuable work standing up to powerful interests.
Dubie said a prominent land-use lawyer would not take the case he's working on, telling him it was hopeless to fight the project.
"Attorneys aren't even willing to take the cases because they know it's a done deal," Dubie said. "People in desperation are reaching out to Annette Smith."
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