Vermont must pay whopping $66,000 in attorney’s fees for failing to provide public documents…
(Michael Barnes, Liberty Headlines) The practice of blocking access to public records just got expensive for Vermont’s chief law enforcement officers.
In a landmark ruling with extenuating circumstances involving consecutive Vermont Attorneys General, ExxonMobil and disgraced former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Vermont Superior Court judge has ruled that the state Attorney General’s office must pay a whopping $66,000 in attorney’s fees for groups who sued for public records after being wrongfully denied access to them under Vermont’s freedom of information law.
The ruling is a significant victory for transparency and open government advocates, but is also somewhat hollow in that Vermont taxpayers will be stuck footing the steep bill for the state’s illegal withholding of public information.
Previously, denying access to lawful public records was only remedied by taking the state government to court and paying for any associated legal costs out-of-pocket with no guarantee of reimbursement, even if the state was found to be in violation of the law.
The financial risk often served as a de facto barrier against government transparency.
A 2011 state law erased that barrier but has only now been tested in a high-profile case.
Prior to the law, courts could have awarded legal fees but they weren’t required to do so – and they rarely did.
“Our system of government depends on an open and accountable government, which is only possible with broad and ready access to public records,” said Brady Toensing, the plaintiff’s attorney.
The $66,000 penalty stems from three cases brought against the Vermont Attorney General’s office by the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, a nonprofit litigation and government accountability organization.
The Free Market Environmental Law Clinic partnered with the Energy and Environment Legal Institute in one case, and in the two others former AG William Sorrell was sued on the grounds that he had been using a private email account to allegedly hide public records.
In all, former AG Sorrell and current Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan were found to provide public information only when they chose to comply with open records requirements.
When they did, it was determined that they were making subjective decisions, arguably political decisions, as to who they thought was deserving of government records.
Officials within the back-to-back AG administrations were also found using private, non-governmental email accounts and personal cell phones to conduct government business with the express intent of avoiding public scrutiny.
The recent financial award was the icing on the cake to the established public records abuses.
“Because of AG Sorrell’s unwillingness to turn over public documents required under Vermont’s public records laws, E&E Legal was forced to seek remedies in the Vermont courts,” said Craig Richardson, president of E&E Legal, to Liberty Headlines in an email.
“We won at nearly every stage, which was memorialized by the court’s recent decision to award us cost and fees since we ‘substantially prevailed’ in several cases,” Richardson said.
The root of the dispute dates back several years to a multi-state effort by Democratic state Attorneys General and their deep-pocketed progressive allies to target ExxonMobil for allegedly knowing about climate change and denying it.
The scheme was led by then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a prominent liberal and self-identifying male feminist who resigned in May over shocking allegations of domestic abuse against women.
After the strategizing between Democrat state attorneys general who considered bringing RICO charges against ExxonMobil, the Energy and Environment Legal Institute and the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic sought public records from the Vermont Attorney General’s office (as well as those in other states).
Their requests were denied in Vermont and the above mentioned court cases followed.
Notably, no actual lawsuit was ever brought by Vermont or New York against ExxonMobil.
“For more than two years, E&E Legal pursued public records in Vermont related to the now defunct Climate-RICO scheme spearheaded by the disgraced former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and former VT Attorney General William Sorrell on behalf of the Rockefeller’s, Tom Steyer, and other billionaire energy market manipulators,” Richardson said.
“These two [Vermont] Attorneys General recruited other state AGs to shakedown ExxonMobil for billions of dollars and to use the full force of their law enforcement power to stop anyone who dared get in the way,” he added.
In her ruling, Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout said that the prior cases leading up to the $66,000 penalty, “strongly vindicate the legal rights of a public records requester in relation to the state agency in possession of responsive records, both in ensuring that a reasonable search for records is undertaken and that responsive non-exempt records are produced in a timely fashion.”
As a result, other individuals and groups seeking government accountability and transparency may be emboldened to exercise their First Amendment rights.
“Sadly, this could have all been avoided, and the taxpayers not forced to pick up the tab for unnecessary litigation, if Sorrell had simply followed the same laws he was elected to enforce,” the spokesman for the Energy and Environment Legal Institute said.