A state trooper says his career was unjustly ruined by the Vermont Human Rights Commissionover its finding that the Vermont State Police likely racially discriminated against Lydia Clemmons, the Black director of the historic Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte.
In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, Cpl. Andrew Leise also claims that Seven Days defamed him in a June 23, 2021 news story about the commission's investigation. He's suing the newspaper, the Human Rights Commission, its executive director Bor Yang and commission chair Rep. Kevin "Coach" Christie (D-Hartford) for six counts of defamation and due process violations.
The Human Rights Commission spent nearly three years investigating Clemmons' complaint that state police were biased in their handling of ongoing conflicts between her family and a farm tenant named Grey Barreda. After initially concluding that the evidence did not support Clemmons' claims, a commission investigator later reversed course, and the body voted 5-0 to find reasonable grounds that state police had discriminated against Clemmons because of her race and sex.
Leise's 69-page civil complaint accuses the commission's leaders of having "manipulated and falsified" their employee's investigative report for political ends, and collaborated with Seven Days to publicize it.
The commission is charged with enforcing the state's civil rights laws. Its staff investigates and reports on allegations of discrimination, and it can also file civil lawsuits for Vermonters whom it believes have been wronged.
Yang, Christie and others "exploited the racial difference" between Dr. Clemmons and the Vermont State Police, "which is a predominantly white force of more than 300, to politically promote itself as aligned with national movements such as Black Lives Matter," the complaint states. In doing so, Leise alleges, they "damaged the good names and reputations of a number of troopers ... by falsely, unjustly and publicly labeling them as racist."
In what Seven Days previously reported was an unusual move, the Human Rights Commission did not post anything about the Clemmons case to its website, and only released its finding and investigative report when Seven Days specificallyrequested it. Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling criticized the commission's decision not to publish the report even though he disputed its findings, Seven Days previously reported.
Leise, however, alleges that the commission broke state law by providing the report to Seven Days. The document identified Leise and other troopers who responded to police calls at the farm, but they were not individually named as subjects of Clemmons' discrimination claim. Leise contends that Seven Days reported on the commission's report uncritically and unfairly, repeating its false descriptions of events without contacting him before publication.
Leise claims that the commission and Seven Days had an "arrangement whereby Seven Days was given the Investigative Report in exchange for favorable coverage that would promote HRC’s leadership, shape public opinion against VSP and its troopers, and eliminate scrutiny of the Investigative Report which would have been part of the due process right of the troopers to defend their good names."
The trooper's complaint does not include evidence showing such an "arrangement," but does include lists of alleged shortcomings and omissions from the HRC report and subsequent Seven Days article, which was headlined, "Vermont State Police Discriminated Against Black Woman Who Runs Clemmons Family Farm, Commission Says."
Leise's complaint suggests an "objective" headline would have been akin to "Vermont Human Rights Commission Struggles with Mismanagement and Keeping True to its Mission.”
In an email Wednesday, Yang declined to comment and asked for a copy of the complaint, which she said she had not yet seen. Christie, who the lawsuit says declined to meet with Leise after the report's release to discuss the restoration of the trooper's reputation, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Seven Days publisher Paula Routly provided a short written statement saying the newspaper "stands by the story."
"We have not yet been served but will be talking to our lawyers about the lawsuit. At this time, we have no further comment," she wrote.
Leise is the only trooper named in the 2021 Seven Days story, which summarized an incident of "particular note" as described in the commission's report. Leise had responded to dueling 911 calls from Clemmons and Barreda, who were in a dispute over Barreda's presence in the kitchen ahead of a scheduled farm event. Seven Days reported that the commission's investigator viewed bodycam and dashcam footage to scrutinize Leise's tone when he interacted with each party. The investigator also consulted a University of Vermont associate professor of linguistics who analyzed the trooper's behavior.
The professor, Maeve Eberhardt, opined that the differences in Leise's approach to Clemmons and Barreda, who identified himself to Seven Days as "Latinx and Indigenous" but who Eberhardt said presents as white, "reflects the systemic racism and implicit racial bias that characterize institutions in the United States," the report states.
Schirling told Seven Days last year that Leise appeared to be using a technique to keep Barreda calm and compel him to comply with the officer's requests. Leise, in his complaint, said the commission's interpretation of his "exemplary" actions that day was clouded by its "anti-law enforcement agenda."
Leise has nearly 22 years of law enforcement experience and an "impeccable record," his complaint states. He has been "unable to return to work as a VSP trooper" since the release of the report and Seven Days article, the complaint states.
"Plaintiff's career in law enforcement has ended," it continues.
But Leise is still a state police employee at the Williston barracks, spokesperson Adam Silverman said, though he has been on leave. Silverman would not specify the duration or type of leave, citing employee privacy protections.
Leise's attorney, Kaveh Shahi, did not respond to a request to clarify his client's employment status.
The trooper is seeking emotional and punitive damages, as well as compensation for lost income.