Investigator clears Sorrell of campaign finance allegations

Bill Sorrell

Attorney General Bill Sorrell. FIle photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

A governor-appointed lawyer and a committee of county prosecutors cleared Attorney General William Sorrell of campaign finance law violations, but the group made no determination on the most serious charge of “bribery,” saying that was “beyond the scope” of their investigation and more appropriately reviewed by federal authorities.

Sorrell praised the findings by Burlington lawyer Thomas Little and said he knew all along that he was innocent. The attorney who filed the six-count complaint against Sorrell dismissed the inquiry’s conclusions as the product of a “country club investigation,” and he said the probe was inadequate because the most important allegation was left unanswered.

Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed Little in May to investigate charges that Sorrell took a campaign contribution in return for hiring an out-of-state law firm to work on a Vermont case, as well as various campaign law violations. The governor made the appointment after Sorrell refused to investigate the allegations himself and questioned his authority to order an independent counsel.

The 14-page report, released Friday, concluded that Sorrell broke no campaign laws during the 2012 and 2014 elections. The inquiry, however, sidestepped the “pay to play” allegation — whether Sorrell did anything wrong when he hired a Texas law firm that had given him a $10,000 campaign donation.

The committee said that allegation involved criminal charges, not campaign finance allegations, and was beyond its scope. The allegation brings into play federal wire and mail fraud statutes and is being investigated by the FBI, sources said. Sorrell said it made sense for federal authorities to investigate that allegation, which he reiterated was without merit.

The Little investigation found fault by a political action committee that helped Sorrell in the hotly-contested 2012 Democratic Party primary against Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan. The case is being pursued for enforcement and will be further investigated. That PAC, set up by the Democratic Attorneys General Association, provided Sorrell with $200,000 just before the primary. Sorrell was accused of improperly coordinating with the PAC, which used former Gov. Howard Dean, a political ally, in ads for Sorrell. The investigation found the PAC, but not Sorrell, ran afoul of the rules.

Overall, Sorrell said he was pleased with the Little report. The longest-serving attorney general in Vermont history announced last year he would not seek another term, a decision he said was unrelated to the inquiry. Sorrell, 68, has been Attorney General since he was appointed by Gov. Dean in 1997.

“I was very confident that a thorough, impartial investigation would reach this conclusion,” Sorrell said Friday. “I don’t want to pretend it’s fun to be the subject of an investigation that I violated all kinds of laws, especially when I’m the chief law enforcement officer of the state.

“I’m pleased and relieved that what I’ve been saying all along, that I’m not guilty of all this stuff alleged by a Republican has reached the conclusion of what I’ve been saying all along,” Sorrell said.

Brady Toensing, the vice chair of the Vermont Republican Party, filed the formal complaint based in part on reporting by Seven Days newspaper and the New York Times.

Toensing said the investigation was incomplete and not aggressively pursued.

“This was a country-club investigation and its outcome was inevitable,” Toensing said. “They didn’t even investigate the most serious charge of bribery.”

He faulted the committee for not pursuing the “pay-to-play” allegation and for not using subpoena power to obtain documents for all the allegations. Without subpoenas, he said the investigation was more of a “gentlemanly inquiry.”

An investigation by Sorrell of alleged campaign violations of Brian Dubie, a Republican who ran for governor in 2010, included the use of subpoenas. Toensing said Sorrell had used a “double standard” in the Dubie investigation.

Attorney Brady Toensing filed a six-count complaint against Attorney General William Sorrell.

Attorney Brady Toensing filed a six-count complaint against Attorney General William Sorrell.

In the most serious of the allegations, Toensing alleged Sorrell took a $10,000 campaign donation in return for hiring a Texas law firm to help Vermont pursue a settlement with the manufacturers of MTBE, a gasoline additive. Sorrell has acknowledged he took the donation but said he hired the firm because they were highly qualified, not because of the campaign contribution.

Little, a former House Judiciary Committee chair, and the committee of eleven states attorneys — (Two, Vincent Illuzzi of Essex and Rose Kennedy of Rutland claimed conflicts in participating, as did Donovan) said in the report they did not pursue the “pay-to-play” allegation because some of those involved were out of state. They said it would be more appropriate to have that allegation looked at by a law enforcement agency. Sorrell agreed it made “total sense” for federal authorities to look at it and that he was confident they would find no wrongdoing.

“Some relevant persons and alleged actions in Count 5 of the Complaint (which does not allege campaign finance law violations) lie beyond Vermont’s borders and beyond the scope of this inquiry making closure of the investigation vis a vis those allegations impossible at this time. Separate investigatory work is underway to deal with those allegations,” the report said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is reviewing the allegations, sources said, with the idea they could better compel those involved to answer questions than a Vermont-based committee.

Toensing said the Little committee could have pursued that charge, but Scott Williams, the Washington County State’s Attorney, said the inquiry was focused on campaign finance violations and that the charge involving the Texas firm “was not in our bailiwick.”

David Cahill, the executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys, dismissed Toensing’s claim it was a “country club investigation” and swiped back.

“Well, I think of all of us, Brady is probably the only one who can really afford to be a member of a country club because we are public servants and Brady is a DC political operative,” Cahill said.

Toensing lives in Charlotte and said he is a Vermont resident and taxpayer — and does not belong to any country clubs.

David Cahill

David Cahill, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, speaks to the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Cahill said it would have been inappropriate for the committee to have investigated criminal allegations like those in the “pay-to-play” claim. State’s attorneys, he said, do not investigate crimes, police do, and prosecutors pursue the ones brought to them by law enforcement, a line Cahill said should be preserved.

“We’re not investigators, we’re advocates” for cases brought by police, he said.

The committee said the complaint had a political tone but that they looked only at the facts and used the same standard of judgement as they would in any case.

“While the Complaint contains detailed allegations of fact, it also has partisan political content. The investigation ignored the latter and focused only on the former. The investigation subjected the allegations of the Superseding Complaint to the rigorous review State’s Attorneys use when determining whether to initiate civil enforcement or criminal justice proceedings.”

According to the report, investigators “probed the allegations with the relevant individuals, through written interrogatories, and interviews with sworn testimony, and also examined public records where applicable. All written statements and responses were given to the investigation subject to the pains and penalties of perjury.”

On the lesser charges, the committee found “insufficient evidence” or “no grounds” for enforcement action on several campaign finance allegations, including claims Sorrell did not properly report campaign expenses on more than a dozen occasions.

There was a separate allegation that he had improperly coordinated a campaign event with a Progressive candidate for lieutenant governor, Dean Corren. The investigation found in the Corren case that it believed Sorrell when he said he attended the event about high gasoline prices in his role as attorney general and not as a candidate.

The report indicated the political action committee set up by the Democratic Attorneys General Association, which helped Sorrell in 2012, had violated rules on registering and filing reports. That investigation is continuing and will likely result in a fine being sought from the PAC. The committee indicated, however, that Sorrell did nothing wrong and that there was a “high bar” to prove improper coordination.

The investigation of DAGA is being pursued by an assistant in Sorrell’s office who is behind a “fire wall” because it involves Sorrell as well. But Cahill said the state’s attorneys will also be helping to provide assurance to the public the investigation would be impartial.

“A separate investigation has been underway in the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) in response to allegations received there in June 2015, alleging campaign finance law violations against the DAGA PAC. The AGO attorneys involved in that investigation established a “fire wall” between themselves and the Attorney General in light of the fact that the DAGA PAC’s support of the Attorney General in the 2012 primary race created a conflict of interest preventing him from being involved in any investigation of the PAC,” the report said.

“The committee has been reviewing the progress of that investigation and each investigation has cooperated and collaborated with its counterpart in appropriate ways in order to assure thoroughness, efficiency and accuracy. This coordinated effort has identified additional instances where the DAGA PAC violated campaign finance laws by filing incorrect and untimely reports beyond those alleged in Count 2 or in the distinct June 2015 complaint,” according to the report.

It continues: “Specific comment on any enforcement action would be inappropriate at this time. However, any enforcement action against the DAGA PAC will be undertaken jointly by the involved (Attorney General Office) attorneys and the (State’s Attorney) committee under the supervision of the committee,” according to the report. A source said typically a settlement offer is made when a campaign finance violation is found and the case only prosecuted if the settlement is rejected.

Sorrell said he didn’t feel he was tainted by the charges and doesn’t believe the eight-month investigation damaged his reputation. Sorrell and Toensing discussed the charges last May and Sorrell discussed the hiring of the Texas firm in December.

“I think it’s unfortunate, I don’t know how many tens of thousands of dollars,” Sorrell said. “But the integrity of the attorney general and of the office, it’s important that people be confident they have people with integrity,” Sorrell said.

The committee report was first reported on by the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus on Thursday, which obtained a draft of the final report. According to the newspaper’s website, the “author” was listed as Scott Williams, but the Washington County State’s Attorney denied leaking the report.

“I don’t know the why or where of this,” Williams said.

Cahill said “all I can say is” the newspaper document had “metadata” that appeared to indicate where the newspaper got the draft copy, a leak one participant in its creation called “disappointing.”

Mark Johnson

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  • Thomas Powell

    Republican gadfly Brady Toensing has been having a pretty bad run of luck. First, his extravagant claim that Jane Sanders spoiled the coffers of the Vermont Catholic church turned out to be wrong. Now, this failed allegation against another prominent Vt. Democrat. As the primaries rev up and political passions burn, I’m looking forward to his next venture.

    • John Eisenhardt Jr

      The allegations were not failed , more likely overlooked. Jane Sanders was paid well to be a failure , that is public record. The Catholic Church was ruined by decades of mismanagement by hierarchy as far back as Bishop John Marshall , she just added to the problem .
      Respectfully John Eisenhardt Jr

      • Thomas Powell

        An interesting bit of revisionist history. Please cite the public record that supports your claim that Ms. Sanders was “paid well to be a failure.” Any financial problems, as you correctly observe, lie at the footsteps of the stridently conservative, anti-choice bishop John Marshall, who seemed unperturbed by his pedophile priests continuing to abuse kids. Therein lies the trouble, both moral and fiscal.

  • Eric Davis

    Candidates for attorney general, both Democrats and Republicans, here in Vermont and in other states, raise campaign funds from attorneys and law firms who in many instances are happy to donate because they believe contributions give them access to the attorney general’s office.

    Some of these donors are plaintiffs’ attorneys who want to get contracts to represent states in matters such as MTBE cases on a contingency fee basis. Others are corporate defense attorneys who represent regulated industries that are frequently sued by attorneys general on behalf of state governments.

    The Democrstic Attorneys General Association, and its Republican counterpart, receive much of their funding from attorneys and law firms. These organizations exist in order to provide a vehicle for these contributions over and above the limits permitted by state campaign finance law.

    A statute to prohibit these types of campaign contributions might not be constitutional. Such a law could raise First Amendment concerns, However, candidates do not have to solicit or accept such contributions. The whole matter also suggests reasons why public financing of campaigns for attorney general deserves serious consideration.

  • samuel shultis

    “A ‘governor-appointed’ lawyer and a committee of county prosecutors cleared AG Sorrell” …. and to this news we should be shocked with further political dysfunction in Montpelier?
    Remembering Howard Dean’s life-long bud and appointee cutting his chops before the Supreme Court – what was it called …. clumsy ineptness? He might consider teaming with Al Sharpton …. prosecuting future Duke lacrosse players.

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