Justices consider whether to suspend law license of Addison County’s top prosecutor

Addison County State’s Attorney Eva Vekos is arraigned on a DUI charge in Addison County Superior criminal court in Middlebury on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Addison County State’s Attorney Eva Vekos is arraigned on a DUI charge in Addison County Superior criminal court in Middlebury on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell) VtDigger file — Glenn Russell

By ALAN J. KEAYS

VtDigger

Published: 03-21-2024 6:16 PM

Vermont Supreme Court justices had plenty of questions Wednesday as they heard arguments over whether Addison County State’s Attorney Eva Vekos’ law license should be suspended.

A prosecutor with the state board overseeing lawyer misconduct in Vermont is seeking the “immediate” suspension of Vekos on the basis that she failed to provide information about a medical leave she took after her arrest in late January for allegedly driving under the influence.

David Sleigh, Vekos’ attorney, argued Wednesday that the board doesn’t have grounds for obtaining that information. According to Sleigh, the board has not shown that Vekos is failing to adequately perform her job. After a roughly three-week paid medical leave, Vekos has since returned to her post.

The state’s highest court heard arguments from both sides during a roughly 30-minute video hearing with all the parties participating remotely.

It’s unclear when a ruling will be issued.

During the hearing the justices frequently interrupted the attorneys and peppered them with questions.

“Here, there’s been an assertion of a medical leave — and the need for a medical leave — and does that put the medical condition at issue here, sufficient to constitute a waiver of any physician/patient privilege?” Justice Harold Eaton asked Jon Alexander, disciplinary counsel for the Vermont Professional Responsibility Board, which is part of the judiciary.

Alexander said he believed that was the case, adding, “the assertion of the need for medical leave was coupled by an indication that the medical leave was in some way necessary, or at least beneficial, to attorney Vekos’ ability to practice law.”

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Alexander cited a press release issued by Sleigh following the Jan. 25 arrest that announced Vekos was going on medical leave. It also stated she would be returning from leave “once fully grounded and up to the task.”

Justice William Cohen pressed Alexander on whether his information request would have a “chilling effect” on attorneys seeking assistance, including medical care, that could help them better perform their jobs.

“I, in no way, find fault with any attorney seeking health care treatment for some condition that may or may not affect their ability to practice law,” Alexander responded.

“What prompted me to file the petition for interim suspension,” he continued, “is that (Vekos) through her attorney selectively disclosed to the public at large that she needed a medical leave to be up to the task of doing her job as state’s attorney.”

And, Alexander said, when he sought information about that medical leave he was told, “This is absolutely none of your business and we refuse to elaborate at all about why she may have taken the medical leave.”

Justice Nancy Waples then jumped in.

“Could it possibly be just for a period of self-reflection?” Waples asked.

“If her break from her job as state’s attorney was only for the purpose of reflection, why was it characterized by her attorney as a medical leave?” Alexander said.

“Words have consequences,” he added, “and when (Vekos) through her attorney characterized it as a medical leave rather than a personal leave or a break, that sets in motion certain inquiries with regard to an attorney.”

Questions, Alexander said, include whether a condition leading to an attorney’s medical leave has been resolved or is under control.

“We may not even have been before this court today if the press release by (Vekos) or her attorney simply said, ‘I’m taking a break from work to let all the tumult settle down,’” Alexander said.

Vekos did not speak during the hearing, as Sleigh, her attorney, presented arguments on her behalf.

Sleigh told the justices that prior to his client’s arrest for driving under the influence, there had been no complaints filed against her or concerns raised related to her ability to practice law.

Then came the arrest, which created a “huge amount of tumult” and led to a great deal of press coverage, he said.

“Eva did the laudatory thing, which was to say, ‘I’m going to step back,’” Sleigh said. “Now, whether the choice of using the word ‘medical’ leave as opposed to some other leave was particularly wise — in retrospect probably not.”

Vekos, Sleigh said, stepped back and took some time to reflect.

Alexander filed the petition for Vekos’ “interim suspension” on Feb. 29.

Vekos went on paid medical leave on Feb. 9, following her arrest on the drunken driving charge for allegedly showing up impaired to the scene of a suspicious death investigation in Bridport on the evening of Jan. 25.

Vekos pleaded not guilty to the driving under the influence charge on Feb. 12 and was released on her own recognizance.

In the days following her arrest and before going on leave, Vekos engaged in an email exchange with law enforcement leaders in Addison County in which she wrote that she no longer felt safe around law enforcement and would not meet with them in person, only on video.

Vekos, in that email exchange, also mocked police’s grammar, drawing their ire.

In announcing her return from medical leave earlier this month, Vekos wrote that she had “deep regret” for the email exchange, terming it “insulting, hurtful and unkind.”

She also said she would be meeting with law enforcement leaders in Addison County to work on restoring relationships.

Sleigh, during his arguments Wednesday, said there has been no indication that Vekos hasn’t been performing her duties as state’s attorney since her return from medical leave.

“At this point,” Sleigh added, “Mr. Alexander isn’t able to say that she’s exhibited any other psychiatric, psychological or medical disabilities in her continued practice as state’s attorney.”

“What information that he has requested have you provided?” Eaton asked Sleigh. “I thought your position was, ‘You’re not entitled to any of it but I’ll tell you there’s nothing there that is of concern.’”

“We provided stuff other than relating to the medical records,” Sleigh replied. “We sent him the press releases, we sent him the information and affidavit from the criminal cases, I mean, we’ve provided things that he’s asked for. It’s not like this has been a total lockdown.”

“You haven’t provided anything about her condition, though, right? Other than your opinion that she’s fine to practice?” Justice Karen Carroll said to Sleigh.

“That’s right,” he responded.