Photo by Bruce Parker
SPEAKING FREELY: Annette Smith, founder of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, spoke freely to supporters after the attorney general’s office dropped its investigation into her advocacy work.
MONTPELIER, Vt. — A critic of Big Renewables in Vermont is free from the threat of criminal prosecution after the attorney general’s office dropped an investigation launched in response to complaints from an anonymous green-energy developer.
Standing before a large crowd, Annette Smith, surrounded by her attorney and victims of green-energy development, thanked supporters and the anonymous developer whose complaints against her backfired when Vermonters rallied to her cause.
“I want to thank the people who brought this complaint to the attorney general’s office,” Smith said to thunderous applause from dozens of people gathered at the Statehouse on Monday.
“I want to thank the attorney general’s office, too, for following up on it and giving me this opportunity to speak to you all and to the people of Vermont to say we can work together to site renewable energy. We don’t have to fight over this, we don’t need lawyers to figure out how to build our energy future together.”
Smith, an environmental activist who helps towns oppose poorly sited solar and wind plants, was the target of a criminal probe for allegedly representing individuals and filing pleadings in Public Service Board proceedings, and for receiving “attorney compensation” for her work. The complainant charged that Smith was guilty of practicing law without a license, an act punishable as criminal contempt of the Vermont State Supreme Court.
A news release issued by the attorney general’s office on Monday said allegations against Smith didn’t apply.
“The Vermont Attorney General’s Office has closed its investigation into a complaint about Annette Smith’s actions in various proceedings before the Public Service Board (PSB). The Office has closed the investigation without further action,” the statement said.
On Dec. 21, the attorney general’s office received a complaint about Smith’s advocacy, and on Jan. 19, Assistant Attorney General Zachary Chen informed Smith that she was being investigated for work in connection with five renewable energy dockets before the Public Service Board.
While the name of the complainant was withheld, Smith immediately filed a public records request to find out who was accusing her. Surrendered documents linked the complaint to Dinse, Knapp and McAndrew, a law firm that represents green-energy mogul David Blittersdorf and employs House Speaker Shap Smith as an attorney.
David Sleigh, the St. Johnsbury attorney who represents Smith, fired back, threatening a civil rights lawsuit against the attorney general’s office for violating Smith’s free speech rights. Sleigh announced that the attorney general dropped the probe shortly after noon on Monday.
Standing with Smith and Sleigh were many victims of Vermont’s green-energy boom: Don and Shirley Nelson, whose dispute with the Lowell Mountain wind project has left the couple and their farm under a gag order for 10 years; Robin Clark, also of Lowell, who can’t get results of a noise testing related to 440 foot tall turbines near the home she renovated for retirement; and Luann Therrien, who had moved from Sheffield to Derby to escape sleeplessness and health issues, she says, were caused by wind turbines.
Without Smith’s advocacy, these victims would have had little chance to fight back against Vermont’s flawed renewable energy siting process.
“The Public Service Board is, in my professional opinion, an abusive process,” Smith said. “It is abusive to the people who participate. It does not provide protections for pro se parties. I have sat in the room with citizens who are abused by the other attorneys, and it’s not shut down.”
Smith added the probe had boomeranged to reveal the shady tactics developers use to silence their critics.
“What this has done is to expose what an undemocratic process we have for siting renewable energy projects. It has also brought attention to the playbook and tactics of the wind industry in particular, which uses silencing people as a way of … getting their project through.”
Smith urged that energy developers should be required to follow Vermont’s stringent Act 250 land use process in a way similar to other developers. That law requires developers to comply with town and regional plans and lacks the “public interest” loophole used to fast-track approval of renewable energy proposals.
State Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, speaking from the crowd, said renewable energy isn’t benefitting Vermont under the current system.
“Just because you see a panel or a windmill, it doesn’t mean it’s benefitting Vermont. If the RECs are being sold out of state and the money is going to the millionaire class and rich corporations, it’s not going to Vermont. We need to impress that on all Vermonters,” he said.
Rodgers is sponsoring multiple bills to ban industrial wind turbines and bring developers under Act 250 land use reqirements, bills that Smith supports.
“We really shouldn’t be building wind in Vermont at all because the costs outweigh the benefits,” she said. “Unless we’re going to address the issues, nobody in Vermont is ever going to want to live near a wind turbine, not when they hear what has happened with these communities.”
Asked afterward if she thought the connection between the pro-renewables law firm Dinse and Knapp and House Speaker Shap Smith contributes to a one-sided approach to energy in Vermont, Smith said, “There’s an appearance of a conflict of interest. Does he have a firewall between him and his firm? I can’t answer those questions.”
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