DAVE GRAM, Associated Press, 5:41 p.m. EST February 8, 2016
MONTPELIER – The state Attorney General’s Office has dropped a criminal investigation into whether an environmental activist operated as a lawyer without a law license in her advocacy for critics of large-scale wind and solar power projects before state regulators.
The office said Monday it had examined the claims against Annette Smith and decided to take no action.
News of the investigation had prompted a public outcry from Smith’s supporters and others, including newspaper editorial writers, upset by what they saw as a legal action designed to quash someone’s free-speech rights.
Smith, who is executive director for a group called Vermonters for a Clean Environment and is not a lawyer, held a news conference Monday at the Statehouse before a crowd of nearly 100 cheering supporters. She sharply criticized Vermont’s system for renewing energy projects. She and her supporters maintain the backdrop for the complaint against her is a Public Service Board review process that is too legalistic and unfriendly to average people who want their concerns heard.
“What this has done is to expose what an undemocratic process we have for siting renewable energy projects,” said Smith, who lives in Danby. “It has also, I think, brought attention to the playbook and tactics of the wind industry in particular.”
Attorney Ritchie Berger, who represents major wind and solar power developer David Blittersdorf, confirmed Monday he was the source of the complaint letter to the attorney general. He said the complaint was not an attempt to chill Smith’s advocacy.
“Rather, Vermont, like all states, prohibits non-lawyers from providing legal advice or preparing legal filings,” Berger said in an emailed statement. “Based on evidence I saw from various legal proceedings, there was a legitimate concern that Ms. Smith was providing legal services to individuals and municipalities.”
Smith said she thought the Attorney General’s Office dropped the investigation “because it’s kind of an embarrassment at this point.”
“I mean, how many people have had four major newspapers print editorials supporting them in Vermont in one week?” she said.
The Attorney General’s Office pointed to vagueness in what constitutes unauthorized practice of law.
“Clarification of the scope of the practice of law is needed,” the office said in a statement. “Any definition of the practice of law must recognize the diversity of advocacy before different forums at the state and local levels, should not abridge First Amendment rights, and should insure that Vermonters have access to justice.”