By Kathleen Phalentomaselli
An attorney for environmental advocate Annette Smith has asked the Vermont attorney general’s office to cease the criminal investigation it has launched against her.
“The very investigation into Annette’s work violates her First Amendment rights,” David Sleigh wrote in letter on Friday.
Smith, who founded and heads the nonprofit Vermonters for a Clean Environment, advocates for changes to proposed utility projects that threaten homes, quality of life or the environment.
On Jan. 19, Assistant Attorney General Zachary Chen sent Smith a letter informing her of a criminal investigation into her VCE work on specific cases before the Vermont Public Service Board. The PSB is a quasi-judicial board that regulates Vermont’s utilities.
Chen said the AG’s office received a complaint that Smith was practicing law without a license.
In particular, the complaint alleges Smith’s behavior had crossed the line from “pro se advocacy assistance to rendering legal advice on behalf of third parties.”
Since she received the letter, Smith has maintained that the claims are false.
And in Sleigh’s letter, he said her work is classic political speech. “Even when her work is viewed most expansively, Annette does not practice law,” Sleigh wrote. “Annette promotes VCE’s economic and environmental positions involving Vermont’s energy policy.”
Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell, who heads investigations for the AGs office, said practicing law without a license is a criminal offense in contempt of the Supreme Court and the penalty is at the discretion of the court.
But Sleigh said in a Friday night interview, it is almost impossible in Vermont to prosecute someone for practicing law without a license because there is no prescribed penalty for the action.
“This order identifies a criminal act but no punishment,” Sleigh said. “The United States Supreme Court has said that a penal law without an adequately defined penalty is void for vagueness.”
When Smith initially got the news of the investigation, she expressed concern that she could not continue the work she has been doing. But after retaining Sleigh, she said, “he has removed my muzzle.”
Sleigh said the threat of an investigation is a way to silence her.
“Other than putting a gun to someone’s head, this is an effective threat to free speech,” Sleigh said Friday night. “For the AG’s office to say shut up or we’re going to incarcerate you, it’s astonishing.”
Additionally, Sleigh pointed to the fact that Smith has opposed wealthy individuals.
“The fact that they have been able to make the AG’s office their surrogate is terrifying,” he said.
Smith asked, “Since when is free speech a partisan issue?”
Attorney General William Sorrell was unable to be reached Friday night for comment.
One of the cases under investigation relates to the case of Michael and Brenda Mammoliti, who asked Smith for help regarding a Green Mountain Power wind turbine in Vergennes that had drastically altered their lives.
“There was a glare like a disco-ball effect and the turbine was placed where the sun sets,” Smith said.
When Smith asked the PSB if VCE could intervene to help the couple, GMP Attorney Joslyn Wilschek said, “It is highly prejudicial to Green Mountain Power.”
But last week, GMP issued a statement about Smith saying, “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.”
Sleigh said if the AG’s office refuses to stop the investigation, he, on behalf of Smith, will be forced to seek injunctive relief in the U.S. District Court against further efforts to inhibit her advocacy.
Sleigh, Smith and VCE have scheduled a press conference at 11:30 a.m. Monday in the Cedar Creek Room of the State House in Montpelier.