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Vermont Secretary of State blasts wind developer’s proposed payments to voters

MONTPELIER, Vt. – Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos said Thursday that Iberdrola’s financial incentive to registered voters is “pushing the envelope in an attempt to influence the vote” on a 24-turbine wind project proposed for Windham and Grafton.

This month, Spanish renewable energy firm Iberdrola offered a community benefits package to Windham and Grafton voters to entice them to allow a giant wind farm in the Stiles Brook Forest area.

The company promised to give $1,162 for every voter in Windham and $427 to Grafton voters. Opponents of the project responded by accusing the developer of vote buying.

While Condos stopped short of calling the money a bribe or undue influence, he said the money could influence how people will vote on Nov. 8.

“It is particularly disturbing that this cash incentive is being offered to ‘registered voters’ only, creating, in my view, a direct line between the money and the vote,” Condos wrote in a letter to Windham Selectboard Chair Frank Seawright.

Seawright contacted Condos Thursday morning to complain of “the tactic being used here in our town to influence a positive vote,” and he urged the Secretary of State’s office to get involved.

“Agents of the lobbying firm KSE are in the area working very hard to undermine the town vote and government. Anything that your office can do may be useful here,” Seawright told Condos.

In his reply, Condos said his office would ask the Legislature to clarify the “undue influence” provision of election law found at 17 V.S.A. §2017, so partnership programs like Iberdrola’s would have clear guidelines to follow.

“Regardless of whether the partnership payments are deemed legal, I remain greatly concerned about where this may lead if we start down this road,” Condos wrote. “In a democracy, a ballot item should pass or fail on its own merits and not because of cash incentives.”

He added: “This is not education or advocacy or free speech. It is a payment to voters. This could conceivably invite a bidding war between competing ‘partnerships’ on every controversial ballot item.”

Iberdrola officials have since responded by saying the individual payments are for all permanent residents, not only registered voters – a claim Seawright disputes.

On Friday, Seawright sent Watchdog a photo of an Iberdrola poster that states, “Through this program, registered voters who choose to opt in will receive an annual payment from the project.” The Iberdrola poster adds that the fund will be dispersed evenly, “making the yearly payment a minimum of $1,162 per registered voter based on the current number of registered voters.”

The poster is corroborated by media coverage of Iberdrola’s announcement, including an Oct. 5 article by VTDigger’s Mike Faher that reported the money is designated for voters.

Condos has not yet released an updated statement on the issue, and Iberdrola did not return numerous requests for clarification.

“(Money for voters) was clearly their initial intention,” Seawright told Watchdog Friday. “And now they’ve apparently realized that the law is a little bit such that they are more likely to get away with it if they say ‘any and all residents.’”

Seawright said he doubts that giving money to all residents would change anything.

“It’s going to come back to the voter checklist I think. How else are they going to verify it anyway?” he said.

“I think the point that people should know is that this is not money that actually benefits the town of Windham. It does not come into the Windham town treasury. Folks do not get to vote on how that money is distributed. It is entirely an agreement between Iberdrola and the individual residents.”

Seawright added that if the project is approved he will encourage recipients of the funds to give the money to families adversely affected by the power plant.

“The state of Vermont has abandoned towns, they give us no guidance, no advice,” he said. “The only thing they do is to say, ‘Well, you have to do the best you can.’”