A law firm representing a prominent green-energy CEO had been investigating an anti-Big Renewables activist now under a criminal probe by the Vermont Office of Attorney General.
According to documents posted Sunday on the blog for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, Burlington-based law firm Dinse, Knapp and McAndrew has been gathering files on Annette Smith, the group’s director.
On Oct. 28, the law firm, which represents All Earth Renewables CEO David Blittersdorf, sent public records requests to the towns of Morgan and Irasburg to inquire about services Smith provided on local renewable energy projects. One request asked for information on whether Smith received “attorney compensation.”
Smith, an environmental activist who opposes industrial-scale wind and solar, was informed in a Jan. 19 letter from the attorney general’s office that she is being scrutinized due to complaints that her work with towns amounts to practicing law without a license – an act considered contempt of the Vermont Supreme Court and punishable by fines or imprisonment.
While the complainant’s identity was kept secret, the Associated Press reported on Sunday that the complaint letter sent to the attorney general’s office references the public records request filed in Morgan. That complaint letter, dated Dec. 17, states that Smith’s work “has crossed the line from pro se advocacy on behalf of her own organization into the realm of rendering legal advice and representation to third parties.”
Neither Blittersdorf nor his attorney would speak to Associated Press reporter Dave Gram about the letter. Watchdog.org’s requests for comment were not returned as of Monday.
If Blittersdorf and his attorneys are the cause of the criminal probe, it would not be the first time they acted against Smith. On Sept. 24, Dinse, Knapp and McAndrew, acting on behalf of Blittersdorf, served Smith a no-tresspass warning covering Blittersdorf-owned lands in Morgan, Irasburg, Lowell, Charlotte, Hinesburg and Chittenden.
Smith, who is not a lawyer, told Vermont Watchdog she received legal advice not to speak about the attorney general’s investigation. She refused to comment on this story.
Towns across Vermont routinely consult Smith as someone knowledgeable about the Public Service Board, a quasi-judicial panel that approves energy-generating facilities. The letter from the attorney general’s office says Smith “may have engaged in the unlicensed practice of law before the Public Service Board in five different dockets.” The docket numbers – all involving renewable energy – are listed as CPG NM-1646, 8148, 8561, 8585 and CPG NM-6633.
The letter further states that the practice of law in Vermont is defined as including “the rendering of services for another involv[ing] the use of legal knowledge or skill on his [or her] behalf – where legal advice is required and is availed of or rendered in connection with such services.”
The recent file-gathering on Smith is certain to raise the eyebrows of those who feel Vermont’s energy policy is rife with conflicts of interest. One of Dinse and Knapp’s attorneys, House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, appoints the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. That committee, led by its chair, state Rep. Anthony Klein, D-East Montpelier, helped pass Vermont’s new renewable portfolio standard, Act 56.
While Associated Press reporter Dave Gram stopped short of saying Blittersdorf hired the firm to seek information on Smith, documents on display at the Vermonters for a Clean Environment blog could pressure Smith’s accusers to step out of the shadows.
“It seems to me that Annette should have the right to know who’s accusing her of something. I think that’s the way things work in this country,” said Mark Whitworth, president of the board of directors at Energize Vermont, a group that advocates for small-scale renewable energy.
“Clearly, the thought that everybody has is that this is an attempt to silence someone who has become very effective. It’s surprising that something like this would happen in Vermont,” he said.
Brian Dubie, Vermont’s former lieutenant governor and a vocal opponent of industrial-scale wind turbines in Swanton, said towns lack resources to argue cases before the Public Service Board and have benefitted from Smith’s guidance.
“Towns and citizens who are desperate to protect their communities have turned to Annette Smith for help. Annette has assisted our community in Swanton for the last seven months (and) is committed to assisting communities who are threatened by the ‘Gold Rush’ of industrial scale renewable energy projects,” he said.
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