VSP trooper sues Human Rights Commission over smeared reputation

Published: Jun. 8, 2022 at 6:54 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 9, 2022 at 12:15 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A Vermont State Police trooper accused of bias is raising concerns about the state’s Human Rights Commission and its practices. It comes after the independent commission found reasonable grounds that several state troopers discriminated against a Black business owner in 2017. Dom Amato spoke with the trooper suing the commission and found out how the organization operates largely under its own discretion.

Vermont’s Human Rights Commission is a quasi-judicial group that investigates discrimination in housing, state government employment and public accommodations. Commissioners are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, but they operate independently and without much oversight.

“I feel as though that they definitely need to be investigated,” said Andrew Leise, who has worked for the Vermont State Police for 22 years. The corporal, currently on leave with his own sick time, says his reputation has been tarnished by a Human Rights Commission report. “As a trooper, if your reputation is damaged -- or in this case destroyed -- how can you go into court and testify as a credible witness?”

In 2017, Leise was one of more than a half dozen troopers who responded to what VSP calls a contentious tenant/landlord dispute at the Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte. The Clemmons say they were terrorized by their tenant, leading to 65 emergency 911 calls between both parties and 25 incident reports in a three-month span.

“We tried our very best out there. We were fair and impartial, reasonable, respectful,” Leise said.

WCAX News obtained a heavily redacted dash cam video and audio from Vermont State Police from when Leise responded to his first call at the property in October 2017. The Clemmons believed their tenant was in violation of his conditions of release from a separate case. They wanted the tenant held responsible, but Leise didn’t think the actions were criminal. Audio of Leise speaking with the tenant is one of many pieces of evidence where the Clemmons say troopers treated that tenant with more respect and deference than they received.

“You’re going to have to be real careful because you know if any little thing comes up, she’s going to call,” Leise says in the recording.

The Clemmons believed VSP should have taken their calls about their tenant more seriously and better enforced court-imposed conditions on him. VSP says more tickets would have led to more trouble and believes their troopers went above and beyond.

“We wanted to bring peace and calm to the situation and we did the best we could to do that,” Leise said.

Months later, the Clemmons filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. After a more than a three-year investigation that included internal emails and interviews with the troopers involved, a decision was made that there were reasonable grounds that VSP had discriminated on the basis of race and gender.

Reporter Dom Amato: Do you feel that you were wronged in this situation?

Andrew Leise: Yes, I do.

A Department of Public Safety spokesperson declined an interview but says it does not believe the HRC findings are supported by the facts. DPS also shared an initial report by the HRC investigator that concludes there were no reasonable grounds that discrimination occurred. But four months later, that finding was reversed in the official 98-page investigative report that was published.

That investigator, Nelson Campbell, no longer works for the HRC and resigned in late spring of last year. We tried to track down Campbell to ask her about what led to her initial report but couldn’t find her in person or by phone.

Investigator Campbell noted in her final report that her perspective shifted over the nearly three years as evidence came in.

Human Rights Commission executive director Bor Yang declined a request for an interview but did share a statement:

“The HRC is a state entity that is charged with the difficult task of investigating and finding discrimination, where it exists. Its staff and commissioners operate with the highest regard for integrity and fairness. Any suggestion to the contrary is absolutely false and without any basis.”

Former Human Rights Commission executive director Robert Appel says during his tenure, an initial finding like this was uncommon and that he would counsel his investigators not to make an initial finding, especially in writing. “I think it was unfortunate and I think a lesson was learned,” he said.

That initial report is a key piece of evidence in Leise’s federal court battle. It’s also a point of contention for Vermont State Police, who questioned how a finding could be changed so late in the process.

On the Channel 3 News on Thursday, Dom Amato examines how the Human Rights Commission makes its findings and why lawmakers say the work they do is vital to protecting Vermonters.

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