By Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Staff Writer | January 23,2016

The head of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Annette Smith, is under criminal investigation by the Vermont attorney general’s office for the possible unauthorized practice of law.

“I can confirm that a criminal investigation is underway,” Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell said in an interview Friday afternoon. “I cannot comment further at this time.”

Treadwell is the chief of criminal investigations for the attorney general’s office.

On Jan. 22, Smith received a letter from Assistant Attorney General Zachary J. Chen informing her of the investigation. 

“This is the arm of government being used to silence me and shut down my work,” Smith said in an interview Friday night. 

The letter did not say it was a criminal investigation, Smith said. But Treadwell, who called her regarding a public-records request she made after receiving the letter, told her it was a criminal investigation, she said. 

Smith said VCE, of which she is executive director, helps people work through the complicated process of challenging large corporations when their homes or the environment might be harmed.

She said much of what she does is secretarial. 

“I’m not a lawyer; I don’t want to be a lawyer,” the Danby resident said. “I have never intervened on a case.”

VCE, founded 16 years ago by Smith, is a statewide nonprofit organization that holds corporations accountable in all regulatory arenas, she said. 

In the attorney general’s letter to Smith, Chen said, the AG’s office was given documents related to several proceedings before the state Public Service Board.

The PSB is a quasi-judicial board that regulates Vermont’s utilities. The board is comprised of Chairman James Volz and members Margaret Cheney and Sarah Hofmann.

“The documents provided to us raise questions about the possible unauthorized practice of law in these cases,” Chen wrote. “The practice of law in Vermont is defined by case law as including ‘the rendering of services for another involving the use of legal knowledge or skill on his or her behalf … the practice of law in Vermont is not limited to appearances in court, and includes actions such as preparing filings.’”

Smith said VCE gets pulled into the PSB process, particularly in wind-development cases, when people do not know where to turn. 

“A couple contacted us with complaints of not being able to sleep and they asked us for help,” she said referring to a wind turbine next to the couple’s property. “They had glare and flicker.”

Smith was referring to Michael and Brenda Mammoliti, who own a property that adjoins a Green Mountain Power wind turbine in Vergennes. The Mammolitis were representing themselves in the case because the PSB declined to provide them an attorney, she said.

In a technical hearing before the PSB in 2014, Smith said, she sat next to the couple during the hearing. 

“We set up a computer screen for the couple and helped them look things up,” she said.

Smith said at the time there were questions from the GMP attorney about her practicing law without a license, but she said the PSB told her it was fine.

According to Chen’s letter, the investigation relates to five PSB dockets, one of which is the Mammolitis’ case. The others include construction and operation of a solar electric generation facility by Barton Solar in Barton, the construction and operation of a meteorological tower in Swanton, and a meteorological tower on Kidder Hill Road in Irasburg. 

Much like state court proceedings, these dockets relate to evidentiary hearings and decisions that can be appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court. 

A person convicted of practicing law without a license at these hearings is held in criminal contempt of the Vermont Supreme Court, Treadwell said.

“It is punishable by a fine, imprisonment or both,”he said. “It is at the discretion of the court.”

In an interview, Treadwell cited the case of Marilyn Christian, who was charged with practicing law without a license in Rutland in 2000. Treadwell said Christian appeared in court with defendants, trying to help them with their cases. And in Smith’s letter, the attorney general mention a case in the 1960s regarding a man in Benson who was writing legal documents for people.

“I’m not doing any of this,” she said. “I think it is shameful that the AG’s office is giving this any weight at all.”

Smith and VCE are now testifying in the 2016 legislative session and she said this proves her point that individuals do not a have a voice in these issues.

“The timing could not be better,” she said. “It’s harassment to chill my work so developers can get permits faster and to chill the public.”

Smith continued, “This is absurd. I am not practicing law, I have done nothing deceptive. This is going to expose political corruption.”