VSP trooper sues Human Rights Commission over smeared reputation - Pt. 2

Published: Jun. 9, 2022 at 6:20 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 9, 2022 at 6:50 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - A former Vermont State Police trooper accused of bias is suing the state’s Human Rights Commission. It comes after the independent commission found that several state troopers discriminated against a Black business owner in 2017. In the second part of his report, Dom Amato looks into how the commission investigates claims and reports findings.

“If the commission did not exist, people who have viable discrimination claims would have a very difficult time raising them,” said Robert Appel, who led the Vermont Human Rights Commission from November 2001 to March 2013.

The commission takes citizen complaints alleging violations of anti-discrimination laws. If the allegations are credible, the HRC will begin a formal investigation. In many cases, both sides mediate a solution and the issue never goes public. If middle ground isn’t met, an investigative report is issued. Commissioners review the report and vote on the finding. If the HRC determines discrimination occurred, the report becomes public and the case could go to court or get settled, which Appel says happens more often than not.

“If there is merit and the respondents are represented by counsel, usually there’s a meet in the middle, resolve it and move on,” Appel said.

The commission accepted 47 formal complaints between July 2020 through June 2021, most based on disability or race. Of the 24 findings made last fiscal year, 12 found reasonable grounds that discrimination occurred and the other dozen did not. Discussions about cases amongst commissioners are private but their final vote is public and so is the investigative report if discrimination is found. It’s a process that’s been in place for decades.

“I think there’s always room to see things in a variety of ways,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County, the longtime chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He believes the statute governing the HRC created a fair process and hasn’t heard of any concern about the way it operates. He says the commission’s work needs to be independent of other state agencies and the Legislature. “If they’re subject to political will, ‘Oh, we didn’t like that particular decision because it impacted an agency of state government, or it impacted someone’ -- That would be real dangerous ground to get into.”

Under state statute, a lot of work that the HRC does is confidential and not accessible to the public. WCAX public record requests for internal e-mails related to the VSP investigation into the tenant dispute were denied. Settlement memorandums and resignation letters are also exempt from public records law, so we couldn’t find out why the investigator who handled the Clemmons case left her job.

Once WCAX started to look into the HRC’s work, a section of their website, including documents about reasonable grounds cases, was removed. HRC officials say it was taken down because of website maintenance and that the documents are now available by request.

The Department of Public Safety has raised transparency questions about the HRC. In a public filing, Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling laid out his concerns about the investigative report on his department, claiming the tone in the final report changed and raised red flags about that initial report’s conclusion of no discrimination. Schirling also noted that there’s no formal process for appealing a reasonable grounds finding or raising questions about the commission.

Trooper Leise also took issue with findings in the final report, claiming politics were at play. “When I went down to these calls, Dr. Clemmons actually thanked me for my work. And her brother, Josh Clemmons, said I appreciate you going above and beyond,” Leise said.

No lawmakers we spoke with had any concerns with how the HRC operates. It was only others, like Leise, who were accused of discrimination.

Fmr. Vt. State Police Cpl. Andrew Leise/File
Fmr. Vt. State Police Cpl. Andrew Leise/File(WCAX)

Former HRC Commissioner Appel says it’s all about perspective and that the group follows the same processes as similar groups on the federal level. “Fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder,” he said.

The commission has been sued before and is involved in ongoing litigation. A case from last year was dismissed, saying, in part, that commissioners and investigators are immune from federal prosecution. And the case against Leise could also eventually be dismissed. There’s new evidence in the form of a sworn affidavit from Josh Clemmons, who was present for some of the interactions Leise had at the farm. In a document filed with the court, Clemmons said he does not believe that Leise “acted in a racist or discriminatory manner with my sister or me.” He goes on to say that he believed that his sister leveraged the HRC investigation to secure a $50,000 donation for business purposes.

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VSP trooper sues Human Rights Commission over smeared reputation

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