Editor’s note: This commentary is by Bram Towbin, the chair of the Plainfield Selectboard.
In a time of budget shortfalls and higher taxes the state government spent money investigating Annette Smith for practicing law without a license. For those who are not familiar with this case, it stems from accusations that her bad legal advice resulted in damage to citizens. Certainly the state has a compelling interest in prohibiting the shoddy practice of law. This matter, however, illustrates a more troubling problem: officials colluding with private interests using “letter of the law” tactics to derail public advocacy.
The Attorney General’s Office decided to drop the Smith investigation after determining there was no merit in the charges. This came after a barrage of publicity pointing out that the accusation was rooted in an ambiguous, little used statute. There were also questions about the motives of the attorneys who initiated the original complaint. They claim to be exercising a civic duty to ensure that accredited individuals dispense legal advice. They publicly attacked Smith as having hurt citizens with inadequate council. That argument lacks credulity. The lawyers involved in questioning Smith’s effectiveness were all involved in matters related to her advocacy. In other words they had a dog in the fight. They were not disinterested public citizens. It would help their cause on two fronts if Smith was silenced. It would aid their clients in matters before the Public Service Board. It would also safeguard their monopoly rendering legal advice. Lawyers need to have a monopoly on practicing law, but not safeguarding the public good.
It is good that the press shed light on the Smith matter which seems to have halted this misguided state probe. But what if the fourth estate never picked up the story?
The Smith affair highlights the broken system surrounding the Public Service Board. People have turned to Ms. Smith, a fierce advocate without legal training, because the cost of hiring a lawyer is beyond their means. The system is rigged for those who have vast sums to spend on professional advocates. The financially disadvantaged people, on the other side of the dispute, are rendered voiceless. The complicated arguments usually affect the value of their most prized asset, their home. If lawyers are interested in safeguarding the public good, then the bar association might focus on providing pro bono services to the victims of a clearly unjust system. They also might consider what befell Ms. Smith and ask questions regarding conduct of its members. Does the Vermont Bar Association sanction the actions of the lawyers who attempted to silence an effective public advocate? Contacting the Attorney General with scurrilous accusations while hiding being the facade of public good might be legal — but does the Vermont Bar Association consider it appropriate?
The real problem, however, lies with the Attorney General’s Office. The power to investigate and indict rests on more than solid legal credentials. Judgement is the paramount attribute for anyone who has the ability to harness the state’s power to investigate, indict and prosecute. It is good that the press shed light on the Smith matter which seems to have halted this misguided state probe. But what if the fourth estate never picked up the story? It’s an open question whether tax dollars would have been poured into what appears to be a private vendetta by a group of clever lawyers.
Initiating this investigation shows a complete lack of judgement or an overt conspiracy to smear someone who has dedicated their lives to the public good. Either way, that individual needs to be terminated. It is not enough to simply issue a press release saying the matter is dropped. A citizen has been dragged in front of the public on the taxpayers’ dime for some opaque private agenda. We need accountability.