Campaign finance redux: Sorrell raises money from staff, companies he investigated

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell campaigns at the Montpelier Fourth of July Parade. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell campaigns at the Montpelier Fourth of July Parade. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

Incumbent attorney general Bill Sorrell has received just over $71,000 for his political campaign over the past year, a boost over his last seven campaign war chests, which he said altogether weighed in at less than this year’s stash.

But the question is who Sorrell is raising money from — and why they donate.

Of the most interesting arguably are a $2,000 donation in May 2012 from Dish Network, a national TV provider headquartered in Colorado, and a $250 donation in March 2012 from Lifelock, an Arizona firm which protects against identity theft.

Sorrell has reached settlements with both firms in recent years, winning substantial awards for Vermonters. In July 2009 Vermont and 45 other states settled with Dish Network over allegations of “unfair and deceptive sales practices”, for $5.9 million, with Vermont receiving $125,000. Less than two years later, Dish again paid Vermont $125,000 in August 2011, to make amends for 310 fraudulent letters sent to Vermont consumers.

Asked whether taking money from companies who have taken advantage of Vermont consumers is acceptable, Sorrell said: “Having a company run afoul of consumer protection laws doesn’t necessarily mean that the company totally lacks redeeming social value.”

“For an individual or a company that arguably acts other than in accordance with the law, I don’t think that gives the company or individual a death sentence,” he said. He added that he hadn’t taken money from the tobacco industry or banks responsible for widespread foreclosures, explaining that he hadn’t directly solicited the contributions from Dish Network and Lifelock. He noted that he didn’t remember the details of the Lifelock settlement.

In March 2010, Lifelock refunded some Vermont consumers and paid the state $15,000 to settle claims of deceptive advertising by the firm. Lifelock exaggerated the risk of identity theft before falsely claiming it could absolutely “guarantee” against such theft.

“I don’t apologize for accepting their support, and it will not affect how I run my job,” said Sorrell.

Dish Network spokesperson John Hall said he doesn’t know or “have specifics” on whether the company regularly donates to attorneys general from whom they’ve faced legal action. He also said he “couldn’t speak to” whether the donation was partly intended to repair relations with Sorrell.

Hall also didn’t know whether Dish’s registered lobbyists in Montpelier – Maclean, Meehan, & Rice – had suggested that the company donate to Sorrell’s campaign. Lobbyist Christopher Rice said the question was better directed to Dish.

In a statement, Dish said: “General Sorrell has been a strong voice for consumers in Vermont and we proudly support him in his re-election campaign.” Lifelock declined to comment.

Sorrell also received $250 from Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing Inc., a Kentucky firm which has been investigated by at least four state attorneys general.

In an interview, Sorrell emphasized that he’d been very tough on Dish Network in both settlements and in his opposition to a proposed merger between Dish Network and DirecTV some years back. He said that he’d probably received the donations after a fundraising pitch he made at a meeting of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, meetings which people from the corporate world often attend in force.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell addressed supporters at his official campaign launch in the Cedar Creek Room in the Statehouse May 30. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

Attorney General Bill Sorrell addressed supporters at his official campaign launch in the Cedar Creek Room in the Statehouse May 30. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

“I’m in a race, and I’m obviously trying to take it seriously,” said Sorrell. “So I’m raising money. It’s not the most pleasant part of running for office, but it’s a necessary evil.”

One Vermont political observer questioned how noteworthy the donations were.

Sorrell made the companies “pay for their sins,” said communications strategist Kevin Ellis. “Then they turn around and give him a campaign contribution. This is the system we have: it’s what everybody does.”

Ellis didn’t believe the donations would buy undue influence, saying: “People give campaign contributions for all different kinds of reasons.”

“As long as it’s disclosed, sure, I think it’s appropriate,” he said.

Support from state attorneys general across the nation

Sorrell also raised significant amounts from a nationwide network of state attorneys general, as well as from Vermont political, government and legal communities. He raised at least $7,500 alone from out-of-state law firms and their employees.

Two of these high-profile firms had represented Dish Network in separate suits, with one New York lawyer in San Francisco-based Orrick, Herrington, and Sutcliffe firm previously heading up Dish’s lobbying team. Another Sorrell donor, Washington D.C. lawyer Bernard Nash, is known as “the godfather of State Attorney General work,” for his work representing clients before state AGs.

Notable donors from state attorneys general and major non-Vermont politicians, whose contributions totaled at least $13,250, included former N.H. Republican Gov. Stephen Merrill, as well as former or current state attorneys general from Maine, Hawaii and Massachusetts. Four people who held or hold the state AG office in Massachusetts contributed to his campaign.

The Democratic Attorneys General Association, which donated $6,000 and has contributed regularly to Sorrell’s past campaigns, said it would back Sorrell over challenger TJ Donovan in this race because Sorrell is a “talented AG” with a strong track record.

Executive director Travis Berry said the group would pay close attention to Vermont’s race, adding that the group is “of course interested in helping protect our incumbents,” their typical campaign policy.

It appears that Sorrell received less from current or former state government employees and the Vermont legal community, with a tally totalling about $4,663, from roughly 15 private attorneys in Vermont.

According to a analysis of campaign finance records, Donovan received donations from about 50 private Vermont lawyers worth more than $15,000.

“To me that’s the interesting question,” said Ellis. “Who raised more money from the Vermont legal community, Sorrell or TJ?”

Donations from employees in the AG’s office

Sorrell raised about $5,825 from eight employees in his office, mostly assistant attorneys general. The six assistant attorneys general who commented said they’d made the contribution in a personal capacity and had not been pressured to do so.

“Some [state AG employees] in my office are volunteering time, out of work hours, to march in parades, to phone-bank, and the like,” said Sorrell. “As I walk around the office, people give me thumbs up signs, and say we’re with you 100 percent, and such. So I believe my support is very strong within the office.”

“But again, I try not to mix the office work and political work,” clarified Sorrell. He said he doesn’t think employee donations create a tense dynamic within the office, and he said he had not solicited any employees, reiterating what the employees themselves say.

Though few of the employees had donated to Sorrell’s previous campaigns, many mentioned the closeness of the race as a key reason for their first donation. Others added that they volunteered outside of government hours for the campaign, with one longtime associate even saying that if Sorrell was not re-elected, she’d expect that she’d leave her job with the state attorney general’s office.

Public protection division chief Wendy Morgan, who has worked with Sorrell since his first year as AG in 1997, seemed surprised at questions about her financial support, saying: “If his own people don’t care if he wins, that would be a story to me!” All six assistant attorneys general extolled Sorrell’s personal virtues, record and work ethic.

As for Sorrell, after quickly mentioning his endorsements from former Govs. Howard Dean and Madeleine Kunin, he reflected on this year’s campaign, which he said is different in a number of ways: “We’ve got paid staff, rental headquarters. We’re communicating, phone-banking, canvassing, sending out mailings, and doing social media.”

“I’ve had the luxury in the past of not having serious opposition.” He added that he’d not been overly active in soliciting contributions in years past. Earlier this month, he sent a fundraising postcard featuring a photo of Howard Dean to supporters.

Nat Rudarakanchana

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