In the year since Barton Chronicle publisher Chris Braithwaite was arrested covering a wind power protest atop Lowell Mountain, the Northeast Kingdom journalist says he’s spent $20,000 defending himself against a trespassing charge he believes never should have been brought.
He’s also spent plenty of time agonizing over whether the incident has marred his professional reputation. “There’s that question hanging over you of whether you conducted your business in a legal fashion,” Braithwaite says.
On the eve of his trial last week, an Orleans County prosecutor suddenly dropped the charge against Braithwaite, offering little explanation for the dismissal. The decision came just days after Braithwaite’s attorney received a cache of internal emails he subpoenaed from Green Mountain Power — developer of Lowell’s Kingdom Community Wind project and the landowner on whose property the protest took place.
Those emails, which were first reported by the Caledonian Record on Friday and unsealed by a judge Monday, indicate that Green Mountain Power higher-ups sought to prevent Braithwaite’s arrest, contrary to the actions of the company’s on-the-ground supervisor.
Now Braithwaite’s lawyer, Philip White, is wondering why it took so long for GMP to set the record straight.
“I do believe that Green Mountain Power, when they saw Chris facing criminal charges, should have notified the state’s attorney that it was their intent that he be allowed to cover this event and that he not be arrested,” White says. “Had they done so promptly, Chris never would have faced criminal charges. It’s a pretty serious matter when somebody — especially a working journalist — is swept up in an arrest and has to face that kind of charge.”
Six of the protesters Braithwaite was covering were also arrested that day. On Tuesday, they were each sentenced to 25 hours of community service.
In the newly disclosed emails, which were sent several days after the December 7, 2011 protest and arrests, GMP corporate officials expressed frustration with those running the company’s wind project for unleashing a public relations crisis.
“If Chris was not been [sic] arrested the other arrests would likely have been a non event,” GMP government affairs director Robert Dostis wrote project manager Charles Pughe on December 10. “Frankly I don’t understand why Chris was arrested since you gave exact instruction that he not be. This week the Communication team have [sic] spent a lot of time and energy dealing with this.”
Dostis, a former state legislative leader, warned Pughe that if GMP arrested trespassers without warning, “we look like the bad guys and we give the protesters just what they want. They are doing this because they want to annoy us in hopes we become aggressive and they can show everyone what a mean and arrogant foreign-owned company they say we are.”
In another email sent the next day to several GMP executives, Dostis reiterated that the company “gave the explicit instruction that Chris was not to be arrested.”
According to the officer who made the arrests, GMP’s directive to spare Braithwaite never made it to law enforcement officials. Orleans County chief deputy sheriff Phil Brooks says that if the company had told him to, he would have left Braithwaite alone.
“One of the questions I asked when we got there was, ‘Are there any exceptions?’ — not at all thinking about the press — but certainly, ‘Is there anyone you will allow here?’” Brooks recounts. “The answer to me was an unconditional ‘no exceptions.’”
GMP communications manager David Coriell, the company’s point man on the mountain that day, confirmed Brooks’ account in a sworn deposition last May.
“I said, you know, I told the deputy sheriff who we had on-site and that we couldn’t have people who were unauthorized on our site, on the site, so in that context, yeah, there was no exceptions,” Coriell said in the deposition.
If Coriell’s bosses didn’t want Braithwaite arrested, why didn’t he relay that to the sheriff? GMP consultant Steve Terry, a former Rutland Herald editor, asked Coriell that same question in an email following the arrest.
Coriell responded with a half explanation. “It didn’t get relayed to all the officers involved,” he wrote.
Coriell argued that Braithwaite had been courting arrest by ignoring demands to leave the property, swearing at Brooks and then walking toward the protesters.
“I don’t care who you are, if you call a police officer an explitive [sic], your chances of getting arrested increase,” Coriell wrote to Terry. “He step [sic] over a professional line.”
A year after the incident, GMP spokeswoman Dotty Schnure says she still has no idea why the message to leave Braithwaite alone was not relayed to Deputy Sheriff Brooks. But she believes Coriell did, in fact, tell somebody in law enforcement.
She’s just not sure whom.
“I think what it comes down to is we ourselves don’t know exactly where the breakdown occurred,” Schnure says. “[Coriell] did tell someone, but communications were difficult that morning. Being on the mountain, no cellphone coverage, not knowing what’s what.”
Coriell, who previously served as a spokesman for former governor Jim Douglas, left the company last summer to go to law school. He declined to comment on the incident.
Reached Monday, the deputy state’s attorney who prosecuted the case, Sarah Baker, cited Coriell’s absence as her reason for dropping the charge — not the GMP emails she had received just days before.
“I attempted to contact [Coriell] but I’m not subpoenaing him to come back to the state for a trespass to property case when I know he has very important things going on,” Baker says. “The state would still have a case if we had Dave as a witness.”
Braithwaite scoffs at that explanation.
“I was pretty inconvenienced for a year,” he says. “The idea that the state is just going to drop the whole case after a year because they don’t want to inconvenience a law student? I can’t find the right adjective, but that’s ridiculous.”
Braithwaite and his attorney believe it was the disclosure of GMP’s internal emails that killed the state’s case.
“The emails indicate that a clear directive was given to David Coriell that Chris was not to be arrested, which is tantamount to saying he had permission to be there,” White argues. “And if he had permission to be there, there’s no unlawful trespass.”
What really irks Braithwaite is that GMP never volunteered the emails he believes eventually cleared his name — at least, not until the company was subpoenaed.
“They had taken a position internally which essentially meant that I had not committed a crime,” he says. “To stand by and let that charge proceed was completely dishonest.”
Schnure disagrees. She says the company’s role “is to respond to what the state and the defense asks us to give them,” which she says GMP did.
“We didn’t feel like we were sitting on anything that would have influenced the case. We weren’t withholding anything purposefully and we were cooperating fully as the case moved along,” she says. “And it’s not even clear to me this would have made a difference if it had been released earlier.”
Under the Radar
About the same time Seven Days hits the streets on Wednesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and Winooski Mayor Michael O’Brien will be jetting south to Florida for a quiet vacation.
Well, not exactly.
Accompanied by a retinue of reporters and business boosters, the political trio is flying to Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base and back in a single day to take a listen to prototypes of the F-35 fighter jet. Weather depending, that is. The planes, which are still being tested, only fly in good weather.
The $23,000 junket — I mean, fact-finding mission — is funded by the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation and other donors who hope the plane will eventually be based at the Vermont Air National Guard headquarters in South Burlington.
Not on the trio’s itinerary? The Florida panhandle city of Valparaiso, which sits just three miles northeast of Eglin. A deeply conservative, pro-military city — 75 percent of its residents voted for Mitt Romney in November — Valparaiso has nevertheless been lukewarm to the F-35.
In 2009, the city sued the Defense Department, seeking changes in the Air Force’s F-35 flight pattern and runway plans. The feds settled, agreeing to bar takeoffs from a runway facing the city.
Nevertheless, the sound impact of the planes on Valparaiso has been “exceedingly high” since they started flying at Eglin, according to Mayor John Arnold.
“They are distinctively a lot noisier than any other airplane the Air Force has,” he says.
Arnold should know. The 82-year-old political independent served as a civilian missile defense engineer at Eglin for 40 years after leaving the Navy in 1954. He calls himself pro-military and even pro-F-35. But he feels the Air Force continues to ignore Valparaiso’s concerns.
“The Air Force is a vast organization and you don’t know who’s in charge and you don’t know who’s calling the game,” he says, lamenting his inability to express his concerns to the service. “There’s no belly button to punch.”
When Valparaiso sued, neighboring cities were livid, Arnold says, worrying that the region would lose out on jobs if the F-35 went elsewhere.
“We had everybody in the world against us because they thought, ‘Hey, there’s gonna be a lot of construction jobs in the area. It’s gonna get us out of the economic problem.’ But that never happened,” he says. “The only people that would profit are the motels and a couple of the hamburger joints. It didn’t affect the unemployment rate one iota.”
Asked if he has any advice for Shumlin and his fellow mayors as they swoop into town, Arnold says, “I feel for them to get a realistic picture they need to be here at some time when the Air Force is not aware of their presence.”
“They’re going to be on their best behavior. And you would be, too!” he adds of the Air Force. “I think they’re gonna be given the cook’s tour and everything will be favorable.”