AG’s office finds no bribery in wind project proposal

MONTPELIER — The Vermont Attorney General’s office has reviewed a proposal a proposal from a wind developer to pay registered voters in the towns where they hope to build wind turbines and determined that it does not amount to a bribe.

Iberdrola Renewables is looking to erect 24 turbines in the towns of Grafton and Windham in Windham county. The company recently revamped its proposal, reducing the number of wind turbines from 28 to 24, in an attempt to ease concerns in those communities. Eight turbines would remain in Grafton but Windham would see four less.iberdrola-renewables-squarelogo-1423748428226

The company also sweetened the financial pot of money it is offering to the towns in its revised proposal. A new component in the financial offer sparked concerns from several members of the public and prompted Secretary of State Jim Condos to seek a legal opinion from the office of Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell.

Condos said he decided to reach out to Sorrell’s office after receiving several calls and complaints about the proposal, including a local resident, an advocate opposed to the project and a reporter from the Chester Telegraph.

Iberdrola’s proposal now includes a bigger financial incentive for the two communities. The total payments to Windham have been increased from $715,000 to $1 million. The company has agreed to pay $395,000 in property taxes, $105,000 cash payment to the town and $150,000 for community use, which could include charities, funding for the fire department and scholarships.

It is the annual cash payments to each full-time resident that is a registered voter that has prompted several calls to Condos’ office, however. Iberdrola says it will provide a minimum annual payment of $1,162 to qualifying Windham residents to help offset taxes and energy costs.

Grafton has seen its potential financial incentive increase, too, from $285,000 to $500,000, which will be distributed in a similar way, according to the company.

Although the state’s Public Service Board will ultimately determine if the wind project can move forward, Iberdrola has said it plans to move forward only if the communities approve the project. Both Grafton and Windham are scheduled to vote on the proposal on Nov. 8.

Nancy Tips, spokesperson for Friends of Windham, which is opposed to the project, said she believes the financial incentives offered by Iberdrola amount to a bribe for a favorable vote.

“Setting aside a large pot of money that is promised to registered voters only if the vote on November 8th goes Iberdrola’s way, seems to me to fit the definition of a bribe,” Tips said in a statement. “Imagine what the situation would be like if opponents of this project came up with another, even bigger pot of money and said voters could have access to that if the vote goes against Iberdrola. This whole idea of linking the outcome of an election to direct annual payments to registered voters is inappropriate. Regardless of its intention, it appears to me like an effort to buy votes.”

Anna Vesely, co-director of Grafton Woodlands Group, another organization opposed to the project, caller Iberdrola’s offer “outrageous.”

“Residents from both towns who have studied the project for the past four years and who have closely followed Iberdrola/Avangrid’s corporate tactics are expressing indignation at this latest effort to exert undue influence upon the upcoming legally warned vote,” she said in a statement.

The two groups reached out independently to Sorrell’s office concerning the legality of the offer.

Michael Duane, Sorrell’s senior assistant attorney general, said Thursday he reviewed the matter and determined there is no violation of the state’s “purity of elections statutes” based on the information he received and reviewed.

“We have reviewed the matter and looked at some case law and informed the Secretary of State that we believe there is no violation of Vermont state law,” he said.

Duane said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against violations in similar cases after applying several criteria, including whether an offer applies to all voters, whether it is a general or specific promise, whether it is offered in an open setting and whether everyone receives a benefit regardless of how they vote.

Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman defended the proposal Thursday, saying it was crafted to provide economic benefits from the project in an equitable way.

“We think it’s unfortunate that a small handful of opponents will stop at nothing to try and taint a proposed partnership between our company and these two towns that could lead to significant economic benefit for local residents,” he said. “Our current proposal is based on feedback from community members who are frustrated that the tax relief from the project would give a larger break to those with more expensive properties.”

The payments, paid out to registered voters, ensures that residents who own less expensive properties and renters will benefit from the wind project, Copleman said.

“The towns will vote on whether to accept or reject our proposal, and if the project goes forward, receives a Certificate of Public Good from the state, and is constructed, every full-time resident of each town at that time would be entitled to the proposed benefits regardless of how, or whether, they voted,” he said.

This story was updated at 5 p.m. to include the opinion of the Attorney General’s Office and comments from Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman. The original headline read, “State officials reviewing wind project proposal after complaints of bribery.”

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