by Paul Lefebvre
copyright the Chronicle 12-12-2012
NEWPORT — A utility wind developer company that tried to do the right thing by the press appears to have shot itself in the foot when it allowed the arrest of a reporter and then failed to step forward and rectify an action contrary to company policy.
The Orleans County state’s attorney’s office last week dismissed a criminal charge of unlawful trespass brought against Chris Braithwaite, a reporter for and publisher of the Chronicle in Barton.
Mr. Braithwaite, who had been spearheading his paper’s coverage of the wind project on Lowell Mountain and the controversy it triggered, went to the site on December 5, 2011, to cover a demonstration that protesters had scheduled for the morning.
Police intervened and arrested six protesters, who became known as the Lowell Six. A jury found each of them guilty of unlawful trespass this summer. Mr. Braithwaite also was arrested despite his claims he only had gone to the site to cover the demonstration as a reporter.
When news of his case’s dismissal was announced last week, Mr. Braithwaite, 68, of West Glover, released the following statement:
“On the day after my arraignment on a charge of unlawful trespass, I wrote that I believed my conduct on Lowell Mountain on December 5, 2011, satisfied the dictates of common sense and the ethics of journalism. What remained was the daunting task of demonstrating that it was also within the law. That task came to a successful conclusion today.”
Dismissal came as the case was preparing to go to trial and after defense attorney Phil White subpoenaed internal e-mails that passed back and forth among officials of Green Mountain Power Company (GMP.)
The documents show that GMP intended to give Mr. Braithwaite and other reporters access to its Lowell Mountain site, where protesters were demonstrating against the construction of a 21-turbine wind project.
“Does anyone know what happened,” asked Robert Dostis, a GMP official who works with communities and who was responding to colleagues about an editorial against the arrest.
To GMP’s site manager at Lowell Mountain, he went on express surprise that an arrest had occurred.
“Frankly, I don’t understand why Chris was arrested since you gave exact instructions that he not be,” he wrote in an e-mail dated December 10.
A day later, a second official struck a similar note.
“I think now we have to put an end to the notion we tried to stop the media, when we simply did not,” wrote a GMP consultant Stephen Terry in an internal e-mail sent six days after the arrest.
He then repeated a question asked earlier by the company’s public relations officer: “Did the leadership instruction not to arrest CB just not get relayed fast enough Monday morning?”
While release of the e-mails helped to end the criminal charge, they may have opened a new chapter in the case.
Attorney White said Monday he had asked for an apology from GMP as well as compensation for expenses and legal fees that came to $22,330.
“Had Green Mountain Power disclosed this information to the State Attorney’s Office promptly, Chris never would have had to undergo a year facing criminal charges,” wrote Mr. White in an e-mail.
“Instead, GMP sat on its hands and did nothing, absolutely nothing.”
Mr. White said he hoped that GMP would “do the right thing” by apologizing and paying Mr. Braithwaite.
But that appeared unlikely Tuesday.
GMP Public Relations Officer Dorothy Schnure said that it was Mr. Braithwaite’s refusal to leave the site that caused him to be arrested. And once an arrest occurred, it was out of GMP’s hands.
“It’s not our case, it’s the state’s,” she said, adding later: “While we had hoped he wouldn’t be arrested, that’s what played out.”
She declined to comment Tuesday if the company had received Mr. White’s request of GMP to pay for his client’s legal fees and expenses.
In an e-mail later in the day Ms. Schnure stated:
“Frankly, the proposition that David Coriell acted inappropriately and that it gives grounds for a legal claim by Chris Braithwaite is frankly frivolous.”
On Monday Judge Howard VanBenthuysen, who presided over the case, released some of the documents, which had been sealed under an agreement between the defense and prosecution.
The judge noted they had been submitted in support of the defense motion to dismiss with prejudice and were now part of the public record.
He also said he would not rule on the motion to dismiss the case with prejudice until the state had a chance to respond. If a case is dismissed without prejudice, the state can bring it again. He set a deadline of December 26 for the prosecution to respond.
Deputy State’s Attorney Sarah Baker said in an interview Tuesday she would file a response opposing the motion because there is still evidence available that would enable the state to win the case.
She said her motion would also explain why the state dismissed the charge, adding that her office did not want to inconvenience a witness and former employee of GMP who has since moved from Vermont. Ms. Baker also said there were documents in the file that had not been unsealed and that would help the state prove its case, in the event it was brought back.
The documents that came to light this week indicated that the state’s dismissal may have hinged on the failure of a GMP employee at the scene on the day of the arrest to correctly inform police officers of the company’s policy toward arresting Mr. Braithwaite and any other journalists covering the protest.
As GMP officials scrambled to learn what had happened, David Coriell, its representative at the site during the protest, tried to explain to his bosses in two e-mails why the arrest had occurred.
The first e-mail sent on the day of the arrest stated: “Braithwaite and another woman stopped at the edge of the construction site and started taking pictures. Phil Brooks, the Orleans Co. Chief Deputy, asked Braithwaite and the woman to get back another 50 feet to the Nelson property. The woman complied. Braithwaite chose to stay. Brooks approached Braithwaite and after a short conversation he asked him to leave or come back and stand with those willing to be arrested. Braithwaite walked back and stood with those being arrested.”
In the second e-mail, dated December 11, Mr. Coriell told his bosses that the no-arrest instructions “didn’t get relayed to all the officers involved.
“That said, I know the Sheriff had no intention of arresting Chris. Chris actually arrested himself by physically walking back to the middle of the crane path.”
He went on to say that Mr. Braithwaite called the officer an expletive. The officer charged that the reporter had stepped “over a professional line.”
Ms. Schnure said Tuesday the scene that day at the site was confusing, with cell phones losing signal and people milling around. She called the arrest Tuesday “a breakdown in communications.”
Concerned that another protest at the mountain was coming, GMP officials huddled and considered what they should do about access and the press, and what instructions to give the police. An e-mail from Ms. Schnure to GMP managers on December 11 laid out a possible course of action.
“Dave confirm that sheriff will be there early if at all possible. Ensure sheriff knows media has permission to be there. Tell Sheriff we really don’t want any reporters arrested.”
Mr. Terry, the consultant, agreed, calling the proposed instructions “a good way to pre-empt another journalism arrest which was never our intent or purpose here.”
While it is still unclear how far the documents went in convincing the state to dismiss the charge, they did provide a picture of GMP managers working to ensure similar arrests of reporters would not occur at future demonstrations.
“We have to minimize the public and political fallout of decisions made on the mountain,” wrote Mr. Dostis in a December 10 e-mail.
“Arresting reporters will do more harm than good.”
Ms. Schnure said repeatedly Tuesday that it was Mr. Braithwaite’s actions that caused his arrest. And that he was not owed an apology by GMP.
contact Paul Lefebvre at [email protected]