Eric Davis: Sorrell's funding draws scrutiny
Last month, Attorney General William Sorrell filed a campaign finance complaint against 2014 Progressive lieutenant governor candidate Dean Corren. Sorrell claimed that Corren, whose campaign was publicly financed, received an illegal in-kind contribution from the Democratic Party — an e-mail blast estimated to have a value of $255 — and failed to report it. Sorrell’s complaint sought $72,000 in fines from the Corren campaign for the alleged violation of $255.
Sorrell claimed that the statute gave him no choice but to seek such a fine, even if the violation was relatively trivial. Sorrell’s insistence on letter-of-the-law compliance with campaign finance statutes raised eyebrows in Montpelier’s political and journalistic communities, considering the allegations of improper coordination with the Democratic Attorneys General Association that were brought against Sorrell himself during his hotly contested 2012 Democratic primary campaign against Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan.
Over the past few weeks, several news stories have appeared about additional alleged campaign finance or ethical violations by Sorrell. Many of these stories were broken by Paul Heintz of Seven Days, who deserves credit for investigative reporting on these matters.
The allegations against Sorrell fall into several categories. First, the campaign finance reports he submitted to the Secretary of State’s office did not include an itemized breakdown of all expenditures, as is required by law. Sorrell’s reports grouped spending into large categories, without stating the amounts of specific expenditures, including to whom and when checks were paid. Sorrell’s campaign also reimbursed himself for several thousand dollars of campaign spending without providing the detailed accounting required by statute.
Second, Sorrell used state resources to coordinate and publicize an event he held in Burlington in September 2014, to highlight high gas prices in Chittenden County and what the state could do about them. The event, which ironically included Dean Corren on the platform with Sorrell, had all the trappings of a political event. Under Vermont law, it should have been coordinated and publicized by Sorrell’s campaign staff, rather than the staff of the Attorney General’s office.
Third, Heintz reported a potential “pay-to-play” violation involving Sorrell. In December 2013, Sorrell attended a fundraiser sponsored by the Democratic Attorneys General Association at which he collected $10,000 in campaign contributions from Mike Messina, the husband of former New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid. Messina and Madrid are associated with the Texas law firm Baron & Budd, which has filed suits, on a contingency fee basis, on behalf of several states seeking redress against gasoline refiners for using the polluting additive MBTE. In early 2014, after meeting again with Messina and Madrid, Sorrell’s office retained Baron & Budd to file an MBTE suit in Vermont, with a contingency fee of 25 percent of any funds awarded by the court. Was the firm hired because of Messina’s contributions to Sorrell’s campaign?
On April 19, Brady Toensing, a Charlotte attorney who is also the vice-chair of the Vermont Republican Party, filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office involving these and other alleged campaign finance violations by Sorrell from 2012 and 2014. Although Toensing is a partisan official, his charges, which are basically a rewrite of articles that have appeared in the press, are meritorious. Sorrell scoffed at Toensing’s complaint, and said there was no reason for him to investigate his own conduct.
There are at least two conclusions in this matter. First, there should be an independent office to investigate allegations of campaign finance violations against the Attorney General and other elected officials. Second, Sorrell’s “above the law” attitude toward campaign finance requirements shows that he has been in office far too long. He should either retire or be replaced at the next election.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.