Washington County State's Attorney's Fund Is Under Scrutiny | Off Message

Washington County State's Attorney's Fund Is Under Scrutiny


  • Terri Hallenbeck
  • Scott WIlliams
Washington County State's Attorney Scott Williams' office appears to be under scrutiny from state regulators for a fund to which defendants contributed.

As the Times-Argus first reported on Saturday, the Professional Responsibility Board, which oversees attorneys' conduct, has raised questions about a "community fund" that Williams oversaw. In at least a few instances, defendants who pleaded guilty to charges filed by Williams paid money intended for the fund, though Williams told the board that none of the money had been spent, and the fund itself has not been formally established.

That's according to a six-page letter dated August 16 that Williams wrote to Sarah Katz, disciplinary counsel for the Professional Responsibility Board. In the letter, posted online by the Times-Argus, Williams, who was elected in 2014, said that he discovered his predecessors ran a fund to support crime victims and other initiatives. They had dissolved the fund, and left behind proceeds, but little other information.

Williams said that he intended to use the leftover money, combined with new contributions, to launch a Washington County Community Support Fund complete with a volunteer board that would oversee it.

The goal, Williams said, would be to finance "harm reduction and criminal justice reform" initiatives. As an example, Williams specifically mentioned paying for dentures for graduates of a local drug treatment program.

Williams remains on family medical leave one month after his sudden disappearance from public view. Earlier this month, the Vermont Supreme Court suspended Williams' law license. In its order, the high court said the the order was filed "due to a medical condition that currently incapacitates respondent from practicing the law."

John Campbell, executive director of the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs, told Seven Days he is deferring to the Professional Responsibility Board investigators to determine what transpired. But Campbell said he was concerned about the reports regarding the Washington County fund. Prosecutors, Campbell said, should not be involved in administering funds or soliciting donations from defendants.

"That’s not the job of our state's attorneys," said Campbell. "A state's attorney's office should not be in the business of starting one of these funds."

Since the revelation of the Washington County fund, Campbell said, he has spoken to some of his prosecutors and told them: "'Your offices are not in the business of raising money for victims. Your business is to enforce the criminal laws of the state in a fair and consistent manner, and protect the rights of the accused.' Every one of them is well aware of that."

Campbell said that no other state's attorney is administering a similar fund.

Meanwhile, a Burlington attorney, Colin Seaman, told Seven Days that his client paid a donation to Williams' fund in exchange for having his case dropped.

Christopher Duprey, who was charged with misdemeanor petty larceny in 2016, paid $200 to Williams' fund as a "fine" in June. The case was dismissed.

"Am I comfortable with this personally? No," Seaman said. "The reason for that is, I think it can effectively lead to people [with] more resources buying a better outcome in the judicial system, which is a detestable end result."

But Seaman said his job is to act in the best interests of his client.

"I have a duty of loyalty to my client," he said. "I'm an attorney who has a client who wants a case dismissed, and I'm told for a few hundred dollars he can pay money to a victims' fund and he can have a case dismissed. I have a duty to relay that information to my client."

Seaman stressed that misdemeanor cases are often resolved by paying a fine, but typically those fines are ordered by a judge and administered by the judicial system.

Williams said in his letter to Katz that he said he had done nothing wrong. He said the fund predated his time in office, and he learned about it in the winter of 2015-2016.

Under the heading "Concerns regarding conditioning pleas and dismissals on 'donations to your office'" Williams wrote:

"This is a mischaracterization of the situation. There have been no donations to my office. Further, no plea or dismissal has been conditioned on such a contribution; obviously not to my office; but not to any other cause either. There are no plea agreements, while I have been State's Attorney, that included any type of donation or contribution other than those authorized or required by Statute."

Questions about the fund are the latest headache for Williams.

In November, Williams was scheduled to testify during the sentencing hearing of Jody Herring, who murdered three of her relatives and DCF social worker Lara Sobel in 2015. Williams had rushed to the scene of Sobel's shooting and attempted to aid her. A week before his scheduled appearance, a Seven Days story questioned a key detail of William's heroic response.

Williams filed a motion to quash his subpoena. Williams sought care at the Brattleboro Retreat, which provides mental health and addiction treatment, and he went on family medical leave.

Williams did not respond to a request for comment. The attorney he hired to represent him in the Herring case, Brad Stetler, did not respond to a message.

Prosecutors from other counties are filling in to handle Williams' caseload, Campbell said.

Like all state's attorneys, Williams is an independently elected official. His term expires in November 2018. Campbell said he hopes that he would "soon" have more clarity on how long Williams will remain on leave.