The Vermont Journalism Trust (VJT) filed its opening brief with the Vermont Supreme Court yesterday in its lawsuit challenging the State’s withholding of public records related to oversight of the EB-5 Foreign Immigrant Investor Program – the program that led to the largest financial fraud in Vermont history. VJT operates VTDigger, which requested the records pursuant to Vermont’s Public Records Act.
After the trial court ordered the State to turn over certain records to VJT, the State refused to say which records it is not providing, in clear violation of the public records statute. VJT is asking the Supreme Court to enforce the Public Records Act’s requirement that, if a public body is going to withhold public records, it must at a minimum disclose what it is withholding, and why.
The ACLU of Vermont, Tim Cornell of Cornell Dolan P.C., and the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic are representing VJT.
ACLU of Vermont Legal Director Lia Ernst: “A truly participatory democracy requires government transparency, and yet all too often we see that the requirements of Vermont’s Public Records Act are insufficient or – as in this case – ignored outright. This case is the latest in our ongoing effort to ensure that public records are truly available to the public and that all of our government officials are accountable to the people they serve.”
The EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa Program is a federal program designed to create jobs and stimulate foreign capital investment in low-income regions while providing a path to citizenship for foreign investors.
The operators of Jay Peak, a ski resort in the Northeast Kingdom, purportedly planned to use this program to fuel major expansions and facility updates. While Jay Peak owner Ariel Quiros and CEO Bill Stenger promised to bring money and jobs to the Northeast Kingdom, they instead engaged in an eight-year Ponzi-like securities fraud. The two also fraudulently peddled the AnC Bio program, which was supposed to be a state-of-the-art laboratory capable of stem cell research and manufacturing artificial organs. In reality, the two never even obtained FDA approval for this project. The result was a “fraudulent scheme” involving the misuse of more than $200 million and Jay Peak’s eventual bankruptcy.
The Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) operated the Vermont EB-5 Regional Center that was charged with overseeing the Jay Peak projects. Nonetheless, the State provided little oversight to the program and ignored many warning signs. In fact, the State had been warned on numerous occasions about Jay Peak’s dubious financial practices yet took no action until after the SEC stepped in.
To uncover details about the State’s inadequate oversight of the EB-5 program, VTDigger made a request in accordance with the Access to Public Records Law to the ACCD for former ACCD Secretary Lawrence Miller’s emails between January 1, 2011 and December 31, 2014. Through this and prior records requests, VTDigger has revealed the extent of the State’s knowledge and lack of oversight over the EB-5 program and its continued solicitation of investors for Quiros and Stenger’s EB-5 projects in spite of increasingly apparent discrepancies.
VJT’s Supreme Court brief is available here.
Republished verbatim from September 14 ACLUVT.org news release.