BENNINGTON — The Vermont Attorney General's office says it "does not intend to get involved" in investigating what an attorney representing a Pownal man accused of domestic abuse has described as improper professional conduct by Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt.
But the attorney, Matt Hart, said in an interview Thursday that he intends to file a complaint with a different governmental agency.
News organization VTDigger.org reported on Tuesday that Hart said during a hearing Monday in Bennington County Superior Court that he would be filing a complaint with the attorney general's office related to lurid Facebook messages a purported "Chad Schmidt" account exchanged in 2014 with a woman who now figures in two pending cases against Hart's client.
Schmidt, who has held his position as sheriff since 2009, did not respond to the Banner's repeated requests for comment. In a statement provided to VTDigger, he denied sending the Facebook messages.
Michael Crawford, 45, Hart's client, faces felony aggravated domestic assault charges stemming from incidents alleged to have occurred in October 2018 and on four dates in 2017, according to court records. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and maintains his innocence, his attorney said.
The alleged victim in those incidents was the same woman who says she communicated online with the Schmidt account several years earlier.
The woman is certain that the Schmidt account user was Sheriff Chad Schmidt, she told the Banner, which is not publishing her identity because she is an alleged victim of domestic abuse. The woman became acquainted with Schmidt through her job, she said.
Bennington County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Lloyd Dean, who is stationed at the county State's Attorney Office, was involved in investigating the cases against Crawford, court records indicate.
A different law enforcement agency should have handled the cases to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, given Schmidt's alleged past interactions with the woman, Hart argues.
The Facebook messages, at times explicit, did not lead to a physical relationship between Schmidt and the woman, she said. The messages, which span multiple weeks in 2014, include a photo of what appears to be a sheriff's vehicle and a reference to Schmidt's marital status.
"You would look good on my arm," the Schmidt account says to the woman in one message.
The messages also purport to show the Schmidt account alerting the woman to a pending warrant for her arrest, telling her that he "gets emails before they 'get filed.'" She thanked him for the heads up.
"I deny any allegation that this conversation ever took place," Schmidt's statement, reported by VTDigger, reads. "The victim in this case and I have no relationship whatsoever. I will explore all avenues to clear my name in this matter with the assistance of an attorney."
Schmidt's statement continued: "The only purpose this serves is to slander my name and try and bring doubt to a felony assault arrest made by an investigator assigned to the state's attorney."
Hart, Crawford's attorney, said he hadn't performed a "forensic" analysis of the Facebook messages but that they seemed to contain information that only a cop or member of the sheriff's office would know. Hart said he shared the messages with Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage before raising the matter in court and contacting the attorney general's office.
Marthage did not return phone calls, nor did she respond to an email asking if she deemed credible Schmidt's claim that he did not send the Facebook messages. She previously told VTDigger that she would "not issue any extrajudicial statements," given Crawford's ongoing legal matters.
In court Monday, according to VTDigger, Marthage said, "There's never been anything to do with Sheriff Schmidt on any of the cases that [Sgt. Dean] had filed regarding this defendant." Domestic violence investigators assigned to her office work "solely at my discretion and my direction," she reportedly said.
In an email Wednesday, Charity Clark, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan's chief of staff, said that a staff member "did receive an inquiry from Mr. Hart," Crawford's attorney, "and referred him to the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council where allegations of unprofessional conduct by a chief executive in law enforcement should be directed."
Hart has not yet filed a complaint with the Council, but he intends to do so, the attorney said in an interview on Thursday afternoon.
Act 56, a Vermont state law that relates to the Council's oversight powers, does not apply to misconduct alleged to have occurred before July 1, 2018, according to the Council's website.
The Vermont State Police could review Sgt. Dean's work on the Crawford cases, Hart suggested, and "if they say the same thing, then they say the same thing."
Crawford told VTDigger that he and the woman both kept copies of the Facebook messages.
The defendant "has a lengthy criminal history in Vermont and New York," according to an affidavit written by Sgt. Dean that was filed in court in connection with one of the pending cases.
In March 2017, he "punched [the woman's] face, causing injury to her lower inner and outer lip along with a black and blue right eye, all documented with digital images," according to the affidavit. The next month, Crawford "strangled and punched in her left eye leaving strangulation marks on her neck and bruised left eye."
In June of the same year, the woman "was punched in [the] nose, causing bleeding," according to the affidavit, and a few months later, she "was bitten on her face and left middle finger by Crawford after an argument that had a police response."
In October 2018, according to an affidavit written by Vermont State Police Trooper Justin Walker, Crawford "grabbed [the woman] by the hair and threw her against the wall." He also allegedly grabbed her throat "and slammed her against the wall again." After his arrest related to those allegations, Crawford told police, "I did not put my hands on that woman."
The woman did not communicate with Schmidt during the investigation of these incidents, she said.