State trooper sues Vermont Human Rights Commission, newspaper over discrimination report

A photo of the Barn House at the Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte. Photo via Human Rights Commission report

A state trooper is accusing a newspaper of giving favorable coverage to the Vermont Human Rights Commission in exchange for access to a confidential commission report involving the trooper and state public safety agencies.

The investigative report, released to the media in June, concluded that several troopers, the Vermont State Police and the state Department of Public Safety discriminated against an African American woman due to her race and gender in their response to her calls for assistance over a landlord-tenant dispute.

The report was the result of a three-year probe by a commission investigator into discrimination complaints from Lydia Clemmons, director of the Clemmons Family Farm in Charlotte.

The investigator found that state police were adversarial toward Clemmons and challenged her requests for protection from a male tenant who allegedly harassed and intimidated her family in late 2017. The five members of the Vermont Human Rights Commission unanimously agreed to accept the report’s conclusions.

Cpl. Andrew Leise, a trooper with state police’s Williston Barracks, was named in the report and an ensuing story in the weekly newspaper Seven Days. He is now suing the Human Rights Commission, its executive director, its board chair and Seven Days in federal court, alleging they violated his civil rights, including violation of due process, invasion of privacy and defamation.

Leise’s 69-page complaint, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court of Vermont, attacked the defendants on multiple fronts. He alleges that commission leaders “exploited” the racial difference between Clemmons and Vermont State Police, whom the complaint describes as a predominantly white agency, to politically promote the Human Rights Commission as aligned with national movements such as Black Lives Matter.

He also alleges that commission leaders “manipulated and falsified” their investigator’s report to show a finding of discrimination.

The complaint states that the commission’s executive director, Bor Yang, gave Seven Days a copy of the investigative report when it should have remained confidential.

This was supposedly part of “an arrangement,” according to Leise’s complaint. The commission would give the Burlington-based newspaper a copy of the investigative report “in exchange for favorable coverage,” he asserted, which would promote the commission’s leadership, shape public opinion against state police and eliminate scrutiny of the investigative report.

The complaint said Seven Days then published an article about the report’s “false contents” and singled out Leise to “falsely describe him as racist.”

It said Seven Days did not reach out to Leise for comment or for an opportunity to address the charges against him. And that after the story was published, the commission chair, Rep. Kevin Christie, D-Hartford, reportedly declined to discuss with Leise how the trooper could clear his name.

Seven Days’ story said the newspaper received an emailed version of the report from the commission on June 10, the same day it asked for a copy. Its story was published on June 23, a week after the report was released to other news outlets.

Several other outlets, including VTDigger, also wrote about the report. 

Leise’s lawsuit said the “malicious” actions of the defendants have ruined his name and reputation. In addition, it said, Leise has lost his career as a law enforcement officer and his income.

He is seeking a jury trial and compensation, including punitive damages.

Leise joined the Vermont State Police in January 2000 and remains an employee, according to agency spokesperson Adam Silverman. He is still assigned to the Williston Barracks, though he has been on leave, Silverman said.

Silverman declined to say how long Leise has been on leave and when he might return to duty. He did not respond to a request for comment on Leise’s lawsuit.

Yang, the commission director, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Seven Day’s editor and publisher, Paula Routly, told VTDigger on Thursday that the publication had not yet officially received a copy of Leise’s complaint but will be discussing the lawsuit with its lawyers.

“Seven Days stands by the story we published,” Routly said in an emailed statement. “At this time, we have no further comment.”

An attorney specializing in First Amendment law, Greg Sullivan, said Seven Days’ story is protected by the Fair Report Privilege — a defense to journalists who fairly summarize government reports or official statements.  

“Even if the government action contains defamatory material, the Fair Report Privilege will protect the press,” said Sullivan, who teaches First Amendment and media law at Suffolk University in Boston and is a board member of the New England First Amendment Coalition. 

The Vermont Supreme Court has recognized this privilege, Sullivan said, and in this case, Vermont law would be applied even though Leise’s lawsuit is filed in federal court.  

The privilege would apply regardless of how the media obtained the official reports or statements, he said.

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