Environmental activist Annette Smith was notified last week by the Vermont attorney general’s office that she was under criminal investigation for allegedly practicing law without a license, Smith said.
Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell, who heads criminal investigations for that office, confirmed there is an open investigation.
Smith, who founded and heads the nonprofit Vermonters for a Clean Environment, helps individuals wade through the often complicated regulatory issues related to proposed utility projects that threaten homes, quality of life or the environment.
A complaint was filed to the attorney general in December regarding Smith’s actions in several proceedings before the state Public Service Board. The PSB is a quasi-judicial board that regulates Vermont’s utilities.
There are three members of the board: the chairman, James Volz, Margaret Cheney and Sarah Hofmann. The complaint alleges Smith’s behavior had crossed the line from, “pro se advocacy assistance to rendering legal advice on behalf of third parties.” The letter, posted on the VCE blog, has the complainant’s name redacted.
In particular, the complaint letter refers to a motion VCE filed in the case of Michael and Brenda Mammoliti.
Smith said the Mammolitis contacted VCE by handwritten letter when a Green Mountain Power wind turbine in Vergennes had drastically changed their lives. “There was a glare like a disco ball effect and the turbine was placed where the sun sets,” she said. “They lost their backyard and porch and they could not use their bedroom because it gave Mr. Mammoliti a headache.”
In the motion in question, Smith asked the PSB if VCE could intervene on the couple’s behalf because Michael’s primary language was Italian. During the hearing regarding VCE’s motion to intervene, Joslyn Wilschek, a Montpelier attorney representing GMP said that the motion “tied GMPs” hands,” according to a transcript of the hearing.
“VCE’s motion is in complete disregard for the board process,” she said, and proceeded to ask the board more than four times to deny VCE’s request because it was filed just one day before the hearing and she did not have time to even consider the motion. “It is highly prejudicial to Green Mountain Power,” she said. Additionally, Wilschek said, “It’s a motion that I’ve never seen before at the board, which is a motion by a pro se organization wanting to act as a lawyer for a pro se party.”
Wilschek then discussed Vermont law regarding practicing law without a license, and said the motion was very different from sitting next to someone and helping them out. Interestingly, in light of the recent media attention to Smith and the Mammoliti case, Green Mountain Power issued a statement on Monday: “Green Mountain Power believes strongly that decisions are best made when all voices are heard. That is why we are so committed to working closely with local communities, stakeholders and partners when energy projects are being considered,” said Kristin Carlson, chief communications executive for GMP. “As I’m sure you know, we have ardently disagreed with some of Annette Smith’s positions, but we have never witnessed her crossing any line beyond what active citizens would do. We appreciate the passion she brings to the public debate and believe her perspective is an important one.”
Smith said on Monday that she has seen a recent shift in views and she has been working with GMP and others regarding projects. “I am starting to see a shift and a larger reciprocation for better siting of projects,” she said. “I don’t want to fight. I want to bring about change in how we view renewable energy.” In GMPs statement, Carlson continued. “What sets Vermont apart from other places is that we respect each other as we work through tough issues even when it’s uncomfortable and hard. GMP believes that we must be willing to have those conversations as part of the process so that we can achieve our shared goal of reaching the best possible outcome for Vermonters.”
Treadwell said this investigation is not unique. There have been approximately 10 investigations around the state regarding complaints about an individual practicing law without a license and only one — the case of Marilyn Christian — was investigated in 2000 in Rutland. “A matter is first referred for investigation,” Treadwell said. “If ,at the conclusion, no crime has been committed, we just close the investigation. If there are grounds, we exercise our discretion whether to file charges.”