BENNINGTON — For an elected public official, Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt has made remarkably few public appearances since the pandemic reached Vermont.
Some town officials have complained that they haven’t been able to arrange meetings with Schmidt to discuss their security contract with the sheriff’s department.
His agency’s key partners haven’t seen him in person since the spring of 2020.
Nor was he present to address widespread but unfounded rumors that he was being investigated by federal authorities — rumors so rampant the sheriff’s department issued a statement saying they were untrue.
Schmidt’s most recent photograph to appear in local media was taken in February 2019, when he was sworn in for his third elected term as sheriff. He was first appointed to the post in 2009 and recently announced that he won’t be seeking another term.
It’s unclear why Schmidt, 45, has not been seen here much in at least two years. But public records raise the question of where he calls home.
Real estate records show that on July 1, 2020, Schmidt and his wife, Jaime-Lyn Schmidt, bought 6 acres of land in northeastern Tennessee. Described in official records as a vacant residential lot, it had a sale price of $18,000. It’s located in Rogersville, the seat of Hawkins County, about 70 miles northeast of Knoxville.
A few months later, on Nov. 20, 2020, the sheriff and his wife bought another property in Rogersville: a single-family house on 2 acres of land, a couple of miles from the vacant lot — and 800 miles from Bennington County.
The 1,500-square-foot home, which has a detached carport and garage, sold for $183,000, according to the real estate records. The transaction was listed in a local paper.
In Bennington County, meanwhile, the Schmidts have cut some of their professional ties.
JLS Catering LLC, a local business that named Jaime-Lyn Schmidt as the registered agent, was dissolved in July 2020, according to records with the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office. The sheriff was also listed as a company member.
And last July, state records show the dissolution of Schmidt Real Estate LLC, which also listed the sheriff and his wife as company members. Both the catering and real estate leasing businesses were registered in 2015 to a single-family home in Pownal.
Now, a person named Jaime-Lyn Schmidt is listed as a culinary arts teacher at a school in Tennessee’s Hawkins County School District, and two children with the same names as the Schmidts’ oldest son and daughter have been listed as students at a Hawkins County school since the fall of 2020, according to online school postings and local news articles.
The Schmidts’ property purchases in Tennessee took place about a year after the sheriff was accused of a conflict of interest in a domestic violence case. The case defendant argued that a sheriff’s deputy shouldn’t have been involved in the investigation, because the complainant was a woman with whom Schmidt had allegedly exchanged sexually explicit messages and had once alerted about a forthcoming warrant for her arrest.
Schmidt denied the allegations at the time and said the messages didn’t come from him.
Elusive public official
Sheriff’s departments help enforce the law, transport incarcerated people to court and deliver court summonses. A portion of the department’s annual funding comes from taxpayer dollars, but a bigger source of money comes from contracts with the courts, state agencies, towns, schools, private businesses and other entities. Up to 5% of these contracts’ cost can also go to the sheriff’s earnings, on top of their state salary.
In September 2020, the Arlington Selectboard became concerned the town was being overbilled by the sheriff’s department, which was under contract to conduct patrols in Arlington.
The following month, selectboard member Matthew Bykowski told the board that the sheriff’s second-in command, Capt. Andrew Hurley, had written to end the contract after receiving Arlington’s complaint. But, Bykowski said, Hurley had no authority to do so; only Schmidt could cancel the agreement from the sheriff’s office, since he was the signatory.
“As of meeting time, Chad D. Schmidt has not provided official cancellation of the contract,” Bykowski was quoted as saying in an Oct. 12 board meeting. “My understanding is he may not even be in state at this point.”
Arlington decided to cancel the sheriff’s department patrol service that October, following what Bykowski said was a futile, monthslong effort to reach Schmidt.
“We were unable to meet with the sheriff in person or speak with the sheriff directly on the phone,” Bykowski said in an interview this January.
He believes this was a result of Schmidt’s “typically” not being in Vermont. “Being the sheriff, I don't think that you can function in that capacity if you’re not physically present,” Bykowski said. “There’s some jobs that you can do remotely, and there’s other jobs that you can’t. I feel like that is probably a job that you cannot do remotely.”
Arlington paid the Bennington County Sheriff’s Department some $32,000 for the patrol service it provided in 2020, according to the latest available county public records. The sheriff’s department’s biggest client, the Vermont Judiciary, paid $346,000 that year for security at the two Bennington courthouses.
Robert Schell, the state courts’ security director, said he routinely communicates with sheriff’s deputies at the courthouses and has seen Schmidt in person multiple times since assuming his judiciary role in 2017.
But Schell said he last saw Schmidt and spoke to him on the phone around March or April 2020. He said those contacts took place soon after the coronavirus pandemic hit Vermont, when the men discussed new courthouse security protocols.
Since then, Schell said their communication has been through emails — which is true of Schell’s communication with most of the Vermont sheriffs.
Another big client of the Bennington County Sheriff’s Department is the town of Dorset, which paid $135,000 for patrol services in 2020.
Town Manager Rob Gaiotti said he last saw and spoke with Schmidt on the phone in April or May 2020, around the time their annual contract was renewed. Gaiotti said he has since communicated with the sheriff through emails and speaks with Dorset’s assigned sheriff’s deputy when he needs to discuss day-to-day security issues.
In the early summer of 2020, rumors began swirling in the Bennington County area that Schmidt had been arrested by the FBI. The chatter reached such a fever pitch that the sheriff’s department spokesperson issued a statement belying such news.
“The rumors are false,” Lt. Lloyd Dean said in an email to reporters on July 3, 2020. “There hasn’t been any of the so-called raids within the Bennington County Sheriff's Department. There are no investigations regarding the department or our personnel, and there have been no arrests as widely reported."
It’s unclear how the rumors started and gained steam. Local media couldn’t reach Schmidt for comment, despite weeks of trying before and after the statement was released.
An office visit
Nearly two weeks ago, Schmidt told the Bennington Banner that he won’t be seeking reelection in November and is supporting the candidacy of one of his lieutenants. He said he planned to move to Tennessee after his term ends.
“The future for me involves relocating down South to be with my family,” he told the paper.
Despite the announcement, Schmidt still has nearly a year left in office. His successor won’t be sworn in until early 2023.
A VTDigger reporter has been trying to meet with Schmidt in person since the spring of 2020, initially through Dean, the department spokesperson, and later by emailing or calling the sheriff himself. In multiple email exchanges between May and August of 2021, Schmidt repeatedly said he was unavailable for a face-to-face meeting. He never responded to say when he’d be available.
On Feb. 9, a day after Schmidt announced his reelection plans, a VTDigger reporter and photographer sought out Schmidt at the Bennington County Sheriff’s Department. The department captain, Hurley, said the sheriff had left the office around noon, an hour and a half earlier.
When asked when the sheriff would return, or where he could be found that day, Hurley said he didn’t know. He added that Schmidt was preparing to go on vacation the following week.
Hurley later said the sheriff might be unavailable as soon as the next day, Feb. 10, and if VTDigger journalists didn’t reach him that day, they likely would not be able to meet until he returned to town on Feb. 20.
Hurley said the sheriff goes to Tennessee once a month and stays there for a week. He later said Schmidt makes the trip out of state once every two months and stays for a week and a half. He confirmed that the sheriff’s wife and children live in Tennessee.
The captain was initially hesitant to pass the message to the sheriff that VTDigger hoped to speak with him that day. “I can’t give him orders,” Hurley said. “He can order me around but I can’t.”
After a while, Hurley said he sent a text message but didn’t get a response. He suggested that VTDigger get in touch with Schmidt directly.
Afterward, the journalists also stopped by the Pownal house where the Schmidts’ businesses were registered. Nobody answered the door.
Repeated calls and an email to the sheriff that week and since were not returned.
What the law says
When asked about residency requirements for Vermont sheriffs, the Secretary of State’s Office referred VTDigger to a 2010 ruling from the Essex County Superior Court that said “the plain language” of the Vermont Constitution does not clearly require sheriffs or state’s attorneys to be residents of the counties they were elected to serve.
How about being a resident of another state?
Jared Carter, a Vermont Law School professor who is an expert on the state Constitution, said he is not aware of a constitutional provision, statute or Vermont Supreme Court decision that answers this question.
He said courts often avoid getting into such political issues, believing it’s better to leave them up to voters. Opponents of a sheriff or state’s attorney “could certainly make that a campaign issue and highlight that that person doesn’t live in the state,” Carter said. “Then the voters will decide.”
If Vermonters want clearer residency guidelines for their sheriffs and state’s attorneys, Carter said, amending the state constitution would be the best way to go. This, he said, would be “more powerful” than passing a new state law.
Not surprisingly, some Vermonters expect sheriffs to live in the county in which they hold office — not to mention in the state.
One of them is Bill Bohnyak, sheriff of Orange County since 2007 and vice president of the Virginia-based National Sheriffs’ Association. He also is a current executive board member of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association.
Amid the nearly two-year-long Covid-19 pandemic, Bohnyak said it is “absolutely” necessary for sheriffs to maintain a strong presence in their areas of jurisdiction.
“The biggest thing is making sure people know that we’re still out and about, we’re performing our jobs,” he said, even if some conversations needed to be shifted to phone calls. Bohnyak said among the people with whom sheriffs should stay in close contact are the town officials in their county of jurisdiction.
Bohnyak said the Bennington County sheriff is a fellow executive board member of the Vermont Sheriffs’ Association. In December, organization members met in Randolph, where Bohnyak said he last saw Schmidt in person.
In January, Schmidt appeared at the annual Bennington County budget meeting, joining the county’s two assistant judges, clerk and treasurer. The discussion, which included funding for the sheriff’s department, was held remotely.
Correction: The location of Rogersville within the state of Tennessee has been corrected.
Stay on top of all of Vermont's criminal justice news. Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on courts and crime.