As the lawsuit filed by EB-5 investors against the state moves through the courts, the lawyer representing those investors has taken on a public role: attorney Russell Barr.
Earlier this week, Barr made headlines with scandalous allegations about public officials without making public evidence to back up his claims.
He came to Vermont 25 years ago from Proskauer Rose, a large law international law-firm in New York City. A 2010 profile in Vermontguides.com reads:
Russell Barr was on a rocket ship, headed to the top of his profession in the most strategically important location for corporate attorneys in the known world: Manhattan. It was the coveted career path for ambitious, hard-working young lawyers.
That’s why nearly everyone who knew him was shocked when he veered radically away from that path in 1993 to move to a small community in Vermont — “Vermont, of all places! What kind of law do they practice in Vermont?” Barr says, paraphrasing the astonished colleagues he left behind.
Asked about Barr’s seemingly unwavering confidence in the courtroom, Barr responds: “I would say when I feel that when justice is on my side, I’m going to storm through it.”
Over the years, Barr has done high-dollar casino deals and litigation with the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and represented small local businesses.
Barr has taken major airlines to small claims court for bumping him from a flight three times. He succeeded once.
Three years ago, he decided to lease and fix up the Morrisville-Stowe Airport. For a time, he sought EB-5 investment for the project.
“The airport was in disarray,” he says, recalling taking his son to learn to fly gliders and seeing grass growing in the runway.
Barr’s colleague, Chandler Matson, says the decision to take on the state on behalf of foreign EB-5 investors is pretty typical behavior for Russell Barr.
“There are not many people who would pick up this mantle on the EB-5 project. It’s a very, very tough fight. The expression ‘you can’t fight city hall’ is there for a pretty good reason,” But Chandler says, “it's a worthwhile thing to do.”
In the suit, Barr is trying to prove that state officials were negligent or corrupt in their oversight of the EB-5 case. The state has said many times it has done nothing wrong. It’s also using the doctrine of sovereign immunity to prevent him from getting access to evidence and testimony which might prove his point.
“What they’re trying to say is,” Barr explains, “no matter what we do [we] can’t be held accountable, and that is so anathema to our American system. That’s anathema to what you teach your kids when you grow up. Be accountable, be responsible. That’s what we’re driven by is to try to get that accountability there.”
Barr has also been a defendant in court a few times. Once for malpractice, and twice by clients trying to get out of arbitration agreements he asked them to sign.
In those cases, two clients found themselves unable try him in court for things like charging unnecessary fees and negligence.
That’s because he had them sign a one pre-dispute mandatory arbitration clauses. These agreements meant before any dispute arose, clients agreed to go through private arbitration instead of suing him in public courts. Arbitration can come with higher fees, and do not allow for a jury trial or appeals process.
Attorney-client arbitration agreements are not common in Vermont.
Some attorneys say Barr’s is the only firm they’ve come across in Vermont that uses them, although other firms in other states certainly do.
Attorney Michael Palmer writes about ethics. He represented one of Barr’s former clients in a case that went to the Vermont Supreme Court. In both his and another arbitration case, former clients claimed Barr had induced them to sign an arbitration clause without explaining the rights they were signing away.
“My own view on that,” Palmer says, “is that you cannot square that with your ethical obligations as a lawyer, to have your client sign that. Even if you provide them with the information about the legal effects of it that some courts have said would make it alright.”
There’s a lot of debate about whether and how these clauses can be used ethically by lawyers and their clients. When asked about the lawsuits, Barr points out that the courts dismissed them, and that he won in arbitration. In one award, (akin to a judge's order), the arbiter wrote Barr's opponents "acted in bad faith" by making largely -- although not entirely -- unsubstantiated counterclaims against Barr.
Barr says his firm will provide more information about the allegations he made Monday in an upcoming court filing.
This story has been updated to include language from an arbitration award written in Barr's favor.