Attorney General Bill Sorrell has closed a closed a criminal investigation into allegations that environmental activist Annette Smith has practiced law without a license.
Smith has helped local residents challenge solar and wind projects planned for their communities. The Associated Press reported that the complaint against her was made by a law firm hired by David Blittersdorf, a prominent renewable energy developer.
Smith has helped Northeast Kingdom residents challenge Blittersdorf’s solar and wind projects. The developer’s law firm served her with a no-trespass order, and filed public records requests with the towns of Morgan and Irasburg as part of its investigation of the activist.
The attorney general’s office said Monday that it had examined the claims against Smith and decided to take no action.
The office noted in a statement that Smith has helped people in cases before the Public Service Board, which regulates utilities and reviews energy projects. But the statement said the board invited Smith’s participation.
“The record reveals that the PSB offered Ms. Smith and her organization the opportunity to file a friend of the court pleading in the matter. Thus, the PSB clearly did not oppose Ms. Smith’s participation as a non-party,” the AG’s office said. .
Smith told the AP 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 noted that the legal definition of practicing law in Vermont, is 54 years old and vague.
“Clarification of the scope of the practice of law is needed,” it 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.”
The AG’s investigation was dropped shortly after Smith’s lawyer, David Sleigh, threatened to file suit in federal court over what he called spurious allegations designed to chill her activism.
Sleigh told VPR that Smith’s activities are political speech protected under the First Amendment.
“This is clearly a pre-emptive effort to keep Annette from speaking in the future. It’s the most efficient way, short of threatening someone with bodily harm, to get them to shut up,” Sleigh said.
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