In reversal, Vt. makes EB-5 legal records public

In reversal, Vt. makes EB-5 legal records public

Vermont officials have agreed to disclose details of two legal contracts related to the EB-5 program.

In response to a public records appeal from the Burlington Free Press, state officials dropped their prior argument that the contracts were related to EB-5 fraud litigation and therefore exempt from public disclosure.

Rebecca Kelley, a spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Scott, said the governor's office called for the release of the documents after learning of the Free Press public records request. Michael Schirling, secretary of commerce and community development, released the records Wednesday.

The documents show that Vermont reached out for national EB-5 expertise when it came under scrutiny from the federal government following an alleged fraud in the Northeast Kingdom.

The Department of Economic Development signed a no-bid $50,000 contract with the Boston law office of Locke Lord LLP for "legal services in support of the Vermont EB5 Regional Center" in July 2016. 

News of the alleged fraud involving projects in Newport and at Jay Peak was announced in the spring of 2016. 

The contract shows that Locke Lord attorneys were hired to help the Vermont EB-5 Regional Center respond to questions from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, at a rate of $560 per hour.

After receiving Vermont's information, USCIS later moved to terminate the state's EB-5 program because it "failed to properly engage in management, monitoring and oversight for many years." 

Vermont has asked the federal government to allow the state's EB-5 program to wind down over a decade, rather than requiring an immediate closure.

The state also entered into a contract for "emergency EB5 legal counsel" with the Chattanooga, Tenn., office of law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz. The no-bid agreement circumvented the standard bid process and was worked out over email "on very short notice" during the final two weeks of December 2016, records show.

Baker Donelson lawyers would be paid $595 per hour for their work on "immigration and related business matters." 

In an interview, Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein said she believed the Baker Donelson contract, similar to the Locke Lord contract, was meant to help Vermont respond to questions from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Goldstein said she hired outside law firms because of their expertise and the short time frames involved in the federal government's requests.

Gov. Scott told reporters Thursday that he sympathized with their frustration over being unable to obtain many records related to the EB-5 program. 

The governor said if there were no ongoing court cases, he would "release every single document" by dropping them on the Statehouse steps for public viewing. 

Instead, state lawyers are planning to release EB-5 records gradually after redacting personal information and going through a court process.


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