Vermont delays, denies EB-5 public records request
Vermont officials have refused to disclose records relating to the departure of the state's EB-5 economic development program director.
Vermont EB-5 Program Director Eugene Fullam resigned July 20, with no warning and no public explanation, at a time when the state's oversight of the EB-5 program has been under scrutiny.
Fullam, who worked at the state approximately one year, declined to comment on the reason for his resignation. Commerce Secretary Pat Moulton said the departure was Fullam's choice.
“It is a personnel matter, which generally are protected matters," Moulton said, "so that would be up to Mr. Fullam to explain his thinking for why he resigned.”
EB-5 is a federal program gives foreign nationals a path to United States citizenship in exchange for $500,000 investments in projects that create jobs. State and federal officials have accused businessmen Ariel Quiros and Bill Stenger of defrauding investors at EB-5 developments in the Northeast Kingdom. Quiros and Stenger have denied wrongdoing, and state and federal lawsuits are pending in court.
The Burlington Free Press filed a public records request for documents connected with Fullam's departure, as well as emails between Fullam and Moulton, his supervisor.
The request stalled 15 business days before the Agency of Commerce and Community Development began to release the requested emails. Public records law allows three days for a records response, or up to 10 days for unusual circumstances.
Moulton said she initially "misread" the request, and that the agency's response was further delayed when Moulton and another official left for vacation. The agency apologized for the delay and offered a 30 percent discount on the $147 bill for producing the public records.
"I’ve never seen that," said attorney Bob Hemley, who represents the Burlington Free Press, when asked about the offer of a discount for failing to follow the law.
Moulton said she offered the discount in an effort to be "more customer service oriented," and gave no explanation for how the agency arrived at the 30 percent figure.
“You could argue we’re overdue," Moulton said. "Really there wasn't a lot of magic or science to it.”
State officials released nearly 200 pages of emails but refused to share Fullam's written resignation.
Fullam sent an email to Moulton on July 20 with the subject line "Letter of Resignation..." The body of the email contained just 1.5 lines of text, and Moulton said in an interview that there was no file attachment. The agency released the email, but redacted the entire text.
The Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development almost entirely redacted an email titled "Letter of Resignation" written by former EB-5 director Eugene Fullam on July 20.
State lawyers claim that both of these documents are "personal documents" exempt from public disclosure.
The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in a 1992 case that the public records law "is to be construed liberally," in favor of transparency. The court said the "personal documents" exemption applies only when records reveal intimate or embarrassing details of a person's life.
Vermont local governments have released resignation letters in the past. This year, for example, the Winooski city manager and human resources manager released the resignation letter written by departing Fire Chief David Bergeron.
“Personal documents are exempt, but being stuck in a personnel file doesn’t make it a personal document," said Hemley, the attorney.
The Burlington Free Press has appealed the records denial.
- State of Vermont vs Bill Stenger & Ariel Quiros
- UNITED STATES SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION vs Ariel Quiros & Bill Stenger
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