Since March 2015, Seven Days has been covering Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s uneven compliance with campaign finance law and his close relationships with national lobbyists seeking to influence his office. Seven Days’ reporting led to the unprecedented appointment of an independent investigator to determine whether Sorrell broke the law. In September, Sorrell announced he would not seek a tenth full term.
Read Seven Days’ full coverage below:
At a March 2015 press conference at his Montpelier office, Attorney General Bill Sorrell announced he was seeking $72,000 worth of fines and restitution from former Progressive/Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dean Corren for sending a $255 email.
After Sorrell threw the book at Corren, Seven Days wrote that the AG himself had a history of uneven compliance with Vermont’s campaign finance laws. The paper documented his close ties to Dickstein Shapiro, a law firm that had sued the state, and to Baron & Budd, a Texas firm he hired to represent the state.
Seven Days found that, over four years, Sorrell’s campaign improperly reimbursed the candidate himself 16 times without explanation, for a total of $18,542.
Facing blowback over his pursuit of Corren, Sorrell asked lawmakers in April to provide him more prosecutorial latitude in such situations.
Seven Days’ public records requests showed that two lobbyists representing Baron & Budd met with Sorrell in New Orleans in December 2013 to ask him to file suit against the oil and gas industry. A week later, they and others associated with Baron & Budd donated $10,000 to Sorrell’s reelection campaign at a Washington, D.C., fundraiser, during which they discussed the potential lawsuit. Within months, Sorrell agreed to sue and hired Baron & Budd as outside counsel, guaranteeing them and the lobbyists a share of any winnings.
In April, Charlotte attorney and Vermont Republican Party vice chair Brady Toensing filed a complaint with Sorrell’s office and called on the AG to appoint independent counsel to investigate himself. Toensing’s complaint was based largely on reporting by Seven Days, as well as the New York Times.
Responding to Toensing’s complaint, Sorrell claimed the Department of Environmental Conservation chose to sue the oil and gas industry, but DEC commissioner David Mears remembered it differently. Sorrell said he would not appoint independent counsel, while Gov. Peter Shumlin said he was focused on other matters.
Democratic, Republican and Progressive members of the Senate Committee on Government Operations said they were considering stripping Sorrell of his powers to enforce campaign finance law.
At a dramatic Statehouse hearing, Sorrell urged a Senate panel to strip him of his campaign finance enforcement powers. The committee called on Shumlin to appoint independent counsel to investigate the allegations. Hours later, Shumlin announced he would.
Seven Days’ public records requests found that Sorrell spent at least 138.5 days traveling outside Vermont in 2013 and 2014, mostly on trips to lavish resorts financed by special interest groups. During his 2014 reelection race, three-quarters of the $56,365 he raised came from those same special interests. Many such donors had business before Sorrell’s office.
Sources said Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan was planning to make a second run against Sorrell for attorney general. Sorrell declined to say whether he would seek a tenth full term, saying he would “deal with that closer to the time."
In May, Shumlin and a committee of state’s attorneys appointed former representative Tom Little to investigate allegations against Sorrell.
Seven Days’ public records requests documented a history of coziness between Sorrell and corporate lobbyists who donated to his campaigns. Though they frequently pressed Sorrell to take official action, they failed to register as lobbyists in the state of Vermont.
In May, Toensing filed a second complaint against Sorrell, drawing from recent stories published by Seven Days.
In June, Donovan said he would challenge Sorrell for attorney general. The incumbent said he would not make a decision about another run until Little concluded his investigation.
In federal court, an attorney for Corren argued that Vermont’s public financing laws are unconstitutional. Sorrell’s office called the move “a procedural tactic” to stall its enforcement action against Corren.
Sorrell announced in September he would retire at the end of his term, saying he’d planned to do so for years.
Bill Sorrell could have ended three decades in public service on his own terms. Instead, the 68-year-old Burlington Democrat let his legendary hubris take him down.
A Rutland attorney raised questions about Sorrell's decision to contract with a New Mexico lawyer and campaign contributor who lobbied the AG to sue 29 oil and gas companies.
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