When Annette Smith got notice from the Vermont Attorney General’s Office that she was under investigation for practicing law without a license, she filed a public records request asking for all related documents.
Almost 600 pages later, the 59-year-old executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment posted everything she received and alerted the media. Against the advice of lawyers, she kept talking publicly about a case that could have gotten her fined – or jailed.
That’s how Smith does business: She’s fearless, thorough and unorthodox.
“I am not pretending to be a lawyer,” she asserted. “It’s VCE’s mission to help raise the voices of communities, so they can have more say in the process.”
Smith has spent most of the last two decades challenging the establishment. She has been a leading adversary in many of the state’s most contentious projects, from a calcium carbonate mine that never began operation in her hometown of Danby to solar and wind projects still on the drawing board.
Those who turn to Smith for help are often neighbors and town officials with renewable energy developments proposed for their backyards. They describe her as a valuable resource, a life raft when they are adrift in a sea of indifferent, even hostile, bureaucracy.
“To me, she’s the heroine,” said Morgan Selectboard chair Larry Labor, whose town used Smith’s help last fall to raise objections about a pending solar project. “I think she’s so competent, she’s become a threat.”
Labor is referring to the renewable energy developers, advocacy groups and policy makers who see Smith as a flame-thrower. She once likened wind turbines to a “terrorist” landing in your community.
“She’s a very divisive character,” said Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, who often does battle with Smith. “She characterizes individuals who are pro-renewable energy as heartless villains.”
Smith is capable and combative and sometimes self-contradictory. She fights renewable energy projects relentlessly yet lives off the grid in a cabin in rural Danby that is powered by a solar panel she installed in 1989. At the back of the cluttered, four-room abode is her office, from which Smith sends emails at all hours of the day and night. Gesturing to a desk chair covered in dog hair from pets who’ve died, she confirmed, “I’m no Martha Stewart.”
The unadorned activist spent most of her childhood in Sarasota, Fla., in an academic household that encouraged creative pursuits. Smith played violin. She quit high school early, to start college. From a public liberal arts school in Sarasota, where her father was a math professor, she transferred to Vassar and earned a history degree.
Smith eschewed traditional careers to apprentice as a harpsichord maker with her now-husband, Bill, in New Hampshire. She proudly unearthed a December 1978 copy of Playboy, which includes a photo of a harpsichord he made. Pictured prominently on its lid is a photo of a nude Smith. She said Bill forwarded the photo to the magazine.
“I was a blonde beach bunny,” she said of her younger years. Now, her thin, mousy-brown hair and well-worn clothing suggest Smith is too preoccupied with serious business to bother with vanity.
In Danby, where Smith and her reclusive husband moved in 1987, she milks her own cow, raises chickens, keeps an African goose named Gander and grows citrus in a greenhouse. “I use the lemons to make lemonade,” she said, double meaning intended.
Smith tried for years to earn a living by making things – including harpsichords. She stitched fur coats for Miss Vermont pageant prizewinners, made beaver-fur teddy bears, elegant copper garden furniture and distinct wooden purses. “We found we could make anything, except money,” she said of the artisan’s life. Plucking a few notes on the small harpsichord she crafted – it’s between the kitchen and bedroom – Smith said she doesn’t have time to play much anymore.
Two years after they moved to Danby, Smith lost a fight against a proposed housing development that she feared would “poison” her water. The houses got built, and Smith said she has boiled her drinking water ever since because it tests positive for bacteria.
A decade later, a natural gas pipeline was routed past her property. Armed with dial-up internet service, Smith plunged into research and made the case against the project. “I planned to do that for two months while my cow was having a calf, and then go back to my life,” she said.
Instead, opposition became her life’s work. The pipeline never got built, but the nonprofit Vermonters for a Clean Environment did. Smith found that people in neighboring towns were willing to contribute money for the assistance she provided. She hired a lobbyist and an assistant to help. Tax records for 2013 show the group brought in $141,000. Smith, whose salary is technically $50,000 a year, said she has gone without pay during fundraising droughts. In the last two weeks, she raised $18,300 for legal expenses using an online GoFundMe campaign.
“She has the ability to master scientific information and then translate it into meaningful situations,” said Matt Levin, a Montpelier lobbyist who used to work for Smith. He called her “one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”
Levin conceded that Smith ruffles feathers. “She does make people nervous. She’s asking questions they would prefer no one ask.”
Smith disputes that she’s divisive. “I don’t go looking for controversy,” she said. “I’m here to help the people who are fighting against, usually, ruthless corporations.” In the next breath, however, she acknowledged there is “no right place” for industrial wind in Vermont. Solar is different, she said: “It’s a matter of putting it in the right place.”
But is there a “right place?” Burns said Smith consistently opposes projects without supporting alternatives. Citing a 2014 Vermont Public Radio interview, he noted Smith was unable to point to a single renewable energy project that she deemed worthy of her endorsement.
That persistent criticism finally landed her in legal hot water – if only for a few weeks. In a January 19 letter, the Attorney General’s Office informed Smith she was under investigation for unauthorized practice of law before the Public Service Board. The gist: An unidentified party alleged that Smith crossed the line into providing legal advice to others in five cases related to renewable energy projects.
As Smith arrived for a Statehouse press conference with her defense attorney on Monday morning to publicly counter the charges, she got word that the Attorney General’s Office had dropped the case against her.
In a three-page announcement, Assistant Attorney General John Treadwell indicated his office found no grounds to charge Smith with practicing law without a license. The complainant had failed to show proof that Smith caused harm, the Public Service Board and state Supreme Court had not objected to her work, and there was no evidence she had represented herself as an attorney, Treadwell said.
Smith went ahead with the press conference, seizing the moment – and the mic – to hammer home all the ways in which the state’s regulatory system is broken. “It’s ‘Let’s make a deal’ behind closed doors,” she said, sounding both authoritative and down-to-earth before a cheering crowd of roughly 100 supporters in the Cedar Creek Room.
Later, Smith debriefed like a politician. “It’s given me name recognition,” she said after the press conference. “It’s made it clear to the legislature that the system needs changes.”
Sen. John Rodgers (D-Essex/Orleans) said the allegations against Smith helped the cause. He’s pushing a long-shot bill to ban industrial wind projects in Vermont. “It has shined a light on how big a problem this is, that people with a lot of money think they can use their money to silence others,” he said.
Treadwell never revealed who filed the complaint against Smith, but, also on Monday, Ritchie Berger, an attorney with the Burlington firm Dinse Knapp McAndrew, confirmed it was him.
Berger said the goal was never to shut down Smith’s right to speak as a public advocate. “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,” he said in a written statement.
Berger argued that the Attorney General’s Office didn’t dispute that Smith had prepared legal filings for others, but that Treadwell had noted that the law needed to clarify whether non-lawyers should be allowed before the quasi-judicial Public Service Board.
Berger said he made the complaint on his own behalf, but his firm also represented renewable energy developer David Blittersdorf when seeking information about Smith and her work with the towns of Morgan and Irasburg. Blittersdorf has proposed solar and wind projects in both locations, and Berger cited them in his complaint about Smith to the Attorney General’s Office.
Smith helped the town of Morgan argue that Blittersdorf’s solar project there violates the town plan. Smith said she doesn’t offer legal advice but helps newcomers navigate the Public Service Board process. “I explain what ‘discovery’ is,” she said. “I tell them what format a brief needs to be in.”
“We didn’t have a clue,” said Labor, the Morgan Selectboard chair. “She said, ‘I do not give legal advice, but I am familiar with the Public Service Board process.’ She told us … how to follow the process.”
The Morgan Selectboard wanted to send Smith a check for $2,500 for her help, Labor said. In the board’s September 28 meeting minutes, that payment was noted – incorrectly, according to Labor – as “attorney compensation.”
That notation surfaced when attorneys at Dinse Knapp McAndrew, stating they represented Blittersdorf, filed a public records request in October with the town of Morgan. They sought correspondence between the selectboard and Smith, documents she had prepared for the town and any compensation she received.
The inquiry caused the town of Morgan to hold off issuing the proposed payment to Smith, Labor said. That was around the time she started wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the statement: “I am not a lawyer.”
Smith is angry at Blittersdorf, but her ire also extends to House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown), an attorney who is also a shareholder and director at Dinse Knapp McAndrew.
“Shap makes money on this activity,” she argued, referring to legal work supporting renewable energy development. She added that he also appoints House members to key positions, where they have made pro-renewable energy policy decisions, while her efforts to restrict projects have been stymied.
Asked if she was accusing the speaker of corruption – a hefty allegation, she said, ‘”Accusing’ is the wrong word,” but added, “the House under Shap has refused to acknowledge or address the numerous and growing problems with wind and solar.”
Speaker Smith denied that he has anything to do with clients that other lawyers in his firm represent. “I work on clients I have, and that’s pretty much it,” he said. “Typically, when people make criticisms like that, they feel they are not being heard,” he said.
Annette Smith’s two-decade battle has centered on making sure people are heard, and yes, she takes it personally.
In Sheffield, she worked for several years with Luann and Steve Therrien, neighbors of a 16-turbine wind project, who argued unsuccessfully that the noise from the blades was sickening them and their two young children. Smith finally bought them a $15,000 mobile home, which they parked on family land in Derby. An anonymous donor later sent her $10,000, she said, and the Therriens are repaying the rest.
Luann Therrien and dozens of others stood with Smith on Monday at the press conference, which the vindicated non-lawyer used to argue that Vermonters are being shut out of the system.
As Levin, Smith’s former colleague, put it: “It’s an enormous burden she bears every day.”
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