and Attorney General Brings Case Against Plainfield Loggers
by Emma Cotton, VTDigger
BURLINGTON – Sam Lincoln wants you to know there is such a thing as an honest logger.
As the owner of Lincoln Farm Timber Harvesting in Randolph, he’s noticed firsthand a rise in distrust toward his profession driven by timber theft and broken or deceptive contracts.
“I am frustrated that innocent landowners are harmed by timber thieves because of the negative impact on my profession,” Lincoln told House agriculture committee members January 12. “I hate to label (unlawful loggers as) loggers. I think they’re thieves that have chosen this profession.”
Land improvement fraud is illegal in Vermont, categorized as a type of home improvement fraud.
“The problem with this statute is that no one wants to enforce it,” legislative counsel Michael O’Grady said during a meeting of the same committee, January 11.
The state Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation lacks the authority to prosecute cases, police officers claim it’s not their jurisdiction and filing a lawsuit yourself is tiresome and complicated, O’Grady said that day.
Local loggers share Lincoln’s sentiment, which sparked Rep. Marc Mihaly, D-East Calais, to propose H.614, a bill cracking down on land improvement fraud. The bill has been a mainstay on committee agendas this month.
“(Vermont has) been very reluctant,” said Steve Hardy, president of the Vermont Forest Products Association, in an interview. “And one of the things we’ve all been saying is, like, what’s the difference of somebody going into your house and stealing your stereo that’s worth $3,000?”
To remove ambiguities about jurisdiction, H.614 distinguishes home improvement fraud from land improvement fraud. If a professional enters a contract for home or land improvement work and knowingly fails to complete it, they would violate H.614. The bill’s language is designed to protect loggers who may accidentally damage property or misread a contract.
“We really don’t want to penalize all the good guys by making things harder for them,” Mihaly said in an interview.
If a business is culpable, H.614 allows police to seize any equipment it used for illegal activity. Furthermore, the bill increases fines and limits the logging activities of businesses with two or more outstanding fines or judgements. As Mihaly put it in an interview, “These guys can no longer log at all unless they pay a bond or else work for somebody legit.”
That’s no slap on the wrist: Logging equipment may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lawmakers hope the punishments will scare corrupt loggers away from scamming people.
“This bill tries to bulk up the consequences of timber trespass,” O’Grady said. “You’re going to have a ripple effect in the community.”
Mike Carriveau, who won a lawsuit in 2019 alleging Codling Brothers Logging hadn’t paid him for logs the business took from his land, expressed in a letter to legislators that H.614’s penalties would be a step in the right direction.
A judge ruled in 2019 that the business, owned by David, Joe and Paul Codling, owed Carriveau more than $2,000, a ruling later affirmed by an appellate court. After weeks of no payment and vague excuses, Carriveau said, he confronted the brothers about their unfulfilled promises.
“(David) told me he had used my money for a ‘deal’ he had made, and I would get paid Friday, which never happened,” Carriveau said in the letter. “I went back to the landing later, only to confront Paul, who told me he was going to counterclaim, stating I owed him for tree service. This was never discussed or part of any contract.”
But Carriveau’s legal win is an exception to the norm. During his legal battle, Carriveau wrote in the letter, he met with other victims who weren’t as lucky.
“Most businesses pointed out (to victims) they knew the system favors the perpetrators, and throwing money at a lawyer was a waste of time and effort,” Carriveau said. “(Victims) would be better off working to recap their loss.”
Mihaly feels confident in H.614’s future. He said he has heard nothing but universal support.
“I’m hopeful that this bill will pass,” Mihaly told Community News Service. “You have two kinds of reception. There’s the people who think, ‘Yeah, I’ve been hearing about this for years, and I hope to God he can really do something about this.’ And then there’s the people who say, ‘What? I can’t believe that this is going on!’ And both groups are supportive. I haven’t seen any opposition.”
How would the bill, if passed, be better enforced than existing rules? Mihaly said it will depend on the Vermont attorney general to step up as county prosecutors have too few resources.
Loggers believe H.614 is a necessary development in an ongoing issue.
“Timber harvesters are not generally in favor of more government regulation,” Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of the Northeast, told the House agriculture committee January 12.
“However, we believe that the legislation before you is an important step forward to professionalize the industry in Vermont, protect landowners and ensure that this industry moves forward without a black eye that has festered here for decades,” Doran said.
Hardy, the forest products association president, said timber theft is rare and carried out by a handful of people. The industry wants the problem to go away, he said. “But you know, you can’t paint loggers all with a bad brush.”
(The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets.)
Attorney General Brings Case Against Plainfield Loggers
by Emma Cotton, VTDigger
MONTPELIER – Attorney General Charity Clark is suing three loggers, alleging that they stole lumber from five different landowners between February 2018 and February 2020.
Clark alleges that David, Paul and Joseph Codling, who own Codling Brothers Logging of Plainfield, have violated the Consumer Protection Act by “making misleading statements about their services and subsequently taking more logs than agreed, failing to compensate landowners and leaving a mess that landowners had to clean up at their own expense.”
In one instance described in the lawsuit, David Codling offered to remove trees from a piece of land after he had gained permission to use it to access another parcel where he was working. He told the landowner he would pay them for the wood he took, according to the lawsuit. The landowner was enrolled in Current Use, a state program that gives landowners tax breaks if they own agricultural land or working forests.
Later, in February 2018, a forester conducted an inspection on the land related to the Current Use program and told the landowners that a wood chip pile was blocking a stream on the property. The landowner inspected the land with foresters from the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation and found “cut trees, debris, and wood chip piles blocking a waterway.” The loggers had taken three to four truckloads of logs without providing any payments to the landowner, according to the lawsuit.
In May 2018, the Codlings approached two people who own land together in Plainfield, offering to remove trees that had blown over in a windstorm and allegedly promising to pay the landowners for the resulting timber sales. The Codlings estimated that the lumber was worth between $3,000 and $4,000, according to the lawsuit. By mid-summer, the landowners hadn’t received any money. In January 2019, the Codlings paid them $3,686, but mill slips indicated that the logs were worth more, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit describes several other instances where landowners were not paid enough, not paid on time, or had to pay to clean up debris the Codlings left behind. In some cases, the suit alleges, the Codlings took trees the landowners specifically asked them not to cut down.
Reached by phone on Monday, David Codling said he became aware of the Attorney General’s lawsuit when he saw a Monday morning story by WCAX on Facebook.
He told VTDigger he believed that he was engaging in trades while performing logging work on the various properties.
“You own 20 acres of land, alright?” Codling said, giving a hypothetical example. “There’s three trees leaning on your house. I say to you, ‘Okay, I’ll trade you taking those three trees down for cutting the rest of your property. You say ‘Yes.’”
He said the scenario was similar to work he’d done on several occasions, in which the tree removal was itself the compensation agreed to by landowners for the lumber he cut and sold. He said he had not reviewed the state’s lawsuit and could not say whether that type of arrangement was involved in each of the cases.
Codling also said that the Attorney General’s Office had reached out several months ago with paperwork, but that the office wouldn’t tell him who had made the allegations. The lawsuit does not use the names of the landowners who have allegedly been impacted by the timber theft.
Separately, state lawmakers are working on a bill, H.614, that he said the scenario was similar to work he’d done on several occasions, in which the tree removal was itself the compensation agreed to by landowners for the lumber he cut and sold. He said he had not reviewed the state’s lawsuit and could not say whether that type of arrangement was involved in each of the cases.
Separately, state lawmakers are working on a bill, H.614, that would make timber theft a type of land improvement fraud. Victims of timber theft have testified before lawmakers, and some have won judgments against the loggers. Still, those who have won judgments reported not having been paid.
Asked how the state’s lawsuit would have a different outcome, Clark said she had not closely reviewed the other lawsuits.
“We seek to hold bad actors who have violated the Consumer Protection Act accountable, and that’s what this case is about,” she said.
While “there’s things you can do to enforce a judgment,” the attorney general said her office is “just at the very, very beginning of the case, and we haven’t gotten remotely to that point where we have a judgment against the defendants.”
The lawsuit asks the court to stop the Codlings from engaging in deceptive practices, to require them to pay civil penalties, to provide restitution to the landowners, to pay damages and profits that the loggers received while selling stolen lumber, and to pay attorneys’ fees.
Patrick Parenteau, professor of law emeritus at the Vermont Law and Graduate School, said the state’s case against the Codlings appears to be strong.
“The real question is, do these defendants have any money?” he said.
If the Codlings can’t pay the judgment, they may be required to file for bankruptcy protection, Parenteau said, “and then you get into all kinds of questions about what’s dischargeable in bankruptcy.” That kind of enforcement, he said, is better carried out by the Attorney General’s Office than by private landowners who would have to pay attorney’s fees and have already lost money from the timber theft.
“My general impression,” Parenteau said, “is the law has not protected these people.”