BENNINGTON — In a first for Vermont, Bennington County State’s Attorney Erica Marthage and her team of prosecutors have filed a civil lawsuit against both the owner of a downtown property known for drug activity and the renter of one of its apartments in an effort to rid Bennington of trafficking sites.
“The aim is to hold landlords and tenants responsible for what happens at their properties,” Marthage said in a conversation with the Bennington Banner. “For too long, landlords have turned a blind eye to what is happening in their rental units.”
The statute that Marthage’s office is using, the state’s Common Nuisance law, allows a municipality to sue an entity, such as a corporate landlord, for monetary damages when defendants allow for continued “open and notorious drug use and trafficking,” among other nuisances, at a property.
Pursuing a legal remedy for out-of-town and corporate landlords who ignore their properties while collecting rent on sometimes multiple units, many paid by public funds through low-income assistance, can prove extremely difficult. However, it has never been tested in a court of law in Vermont, said Marthage.
Owner has multimillion-dollar home in Fla.
In this case, the building’s owner, a limited liability company called Astrum, is owned by Michael Harte. Astrum is a Vermont-registered company but has a registered mailing address connected to a multimillion-dollar single-family residence in Palm City, Fla., the only address for Astrum listed with the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office. All that is required by the state of Vermont for LLC ownership is a named registered agent with a local address in the secretary of state’s files, not necessarily the actual owner. The registered agent, in this case, is Glenn Comar, with an address on Willow Road in Bennington.
A woman answering the telephone at Comar’s residence denied that Comar has anything to do with the management of the building or any involvement whatsoever with the apartment complex or the ownership of the building. Comar never came to the phone. According to Jared Bianchi, one of the state’s attorneys working on the case, Comar is not part of Astrum but is listed as the agent in the paperwork.
Dramatic daytime raid
The residential building at 546 Main St. was the scene of a dramatic daytime police raid in early July of this year, which netted seven drug-related arrests, including Peter Aleksonis, 57, who is the renter of record for apartment 546A in the residential building, which sits less than a block away from most of the retail shops and restaurants lining Bennington’s Main Street. It has been the scene of numerous incidents involving drugs, violence and the related Bennington Police Department responses.
“As far as my client is concerned,” attorney Timothy Fair, who represents Michael Harte, owner of Astrum, “we’re a little confused about why he (Michael Harte) is headed into this. He does not live in the state of Vermont. As soon as he heard there was illegal activity at the property, he retained me to begin eviction proceedings against Mr. Aleksonis, which began in July and are currently pending. My client moved to remedy this situation immediately upon learning. Our position is that we took every reasonable step immediately upon hearing about the incident.”
A knock on the apartment in question at 546A to speak with Aleksonis, the lease-holder on the apartment, and a defendant in the lawsuit, was left unanswered. Aleksonis has had numerous run-ins with the law here in Bennington. He has a long record, including felony and misdemeanor charges dating back several years, including domestic assault, drug offenses, violations of abuse orders, failure to comply with the sex offender registry and disorderly conduct.
‘Crashing in on known users’
“What’s happening here,” Marthage said, “is that these drug dealers coming into our community are not renting these apartments; they’re crashing in on known users, so they can sell drugs and commit other crimes. The drug users are sometimes on-board, and they may be forced to comply.”
“The purpose of this is not to just put pressure on drug users or drug dealers,” Marthage said, “but it’s also to make sure that landlords grasp the idea that you can’t just be this absentee landlord, from Florida or wherever, renting these apartments out without caring about what happens there. We are putting these landlords on notice that this is not going to happen here anymore without consequences.”
Marthage already has received numerous calls from other jurisdictions wanting information on this case, so they can use it inside their own communities. Marthage believes this issue is happening all over Vermont and all over the country.
“It happens everywhere that landlords don’t give a crap about the communities they own in.”
A blind eye, prosecutor says
“We know there is further infrastructure that allows this to happen,” said Deputy State’s Attorney Robert Plunkett, “and that there are people actually profiting from it. It might be turning a blind eye to where those profits are coming from, but it’s still happening.”
The lawsuit is asking for penalties of $100 a day, from the beginning of the nuisance to its conclusion, if certain conditions are not addressed and cleaned up. Any money recovered from the lawsuit would go to the town.
“We’ve never seen any action like this,” said Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette when asked for a reaction to the state’s attorney’s plan. “I applaud Erica Marthage for trying to bring attention to these absentee LLC owners and hold them accountable for what’s happening in their apartments. Absentee landlords are a problem. When you stop and look at all of the current things going on here in Bennington, we need to take these steps to hold people responsible.”
Doucette said the tacit approval of the drug activity has to stop.
“There are people just trying to live their life in peace in and around these buildings. We need everyone’s help to rid our community of these problems we are facing. If you want to just collect a paycheck without doing anything about this, that’s a problem for me as the police chief, and it’s a problem for the rest of this community,” he said.
Marthage said the state and town need all the tools available to curtail the amounts of drugs coming into the community and to “make it harder for [dealers] to be here.”
“These landlords know drug users are a vulnerable population. They don’t have to keep the place up to code, fix it or do any of those things. It’s a complete lack of responsibility on behalf of these corporate landlords. We want to put people who don’t act responsibly on notice. They think they are untouchable. Hopefully, not anymore.”