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State Police, Feds To Consider Investigating AG Sorrell

Toby Talbot
AP File
State and federal authorities are meeting Friday to discuss a possible criminal investigation into the campaign finance activites of Attorney General Bill Sorrell, seen here at a 2013 news conference.

The Vermont State Police clarified Wednesday that Attorney General William Sorrell is not currently facing a criminal investigation for pay-to-play allegations, but said they may launch an investigation after state authorities consult with federal law enforcement officials on Friday.

Sorrell was recently cleared of four alleged campaign finance violations after an investigation by independent counsel Thomas Little. But Little, who was appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin, punted on two other allegations, including a potential criminal act, saying it was outside the scope of his authority.

Vermont State Police spokesman Scott Waterman issued a statement Wednesday evening that said a panel of county state’s attorneys that oversaw the Little investigation referred the potential criminal action by Sorrell to the agency as a criminal complaint.

“After a civil review of campaign finance activities by Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, the Vermont State Police received a complaint of alleged criminal misconduct from the state’s attorneys conducting the review,” Waterman said in his statement. “The Vermont State Police has scheduled a meeting this Friday with federal authorities, to determine if an investigation is warranted, and who has jurisdiction to perform the investigation if one occurs. At this time, there is no active investigation into this allegation being conducted by the Vermont State Police.”

"[T]he Vermont State Police received a complaint of alleged criminal misconduct from the state's attorneys conducting the review." - Scott Waterman, Vermont State Police

Little, a former state representative from Shelburne, was tasked with investigating Sorrell’s campaign finance activity following extensive coverage of potential violations last March by Seven Days, the weekly Burlington newspaper. The appointment of Little took place after Sorrell declined to, in effect, investigate himself.

Brady Toensing, an attorney and vice chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, filed a complaint last April based on the Seven Days reporting and followed up with further allegations in May. In addition to the four campaign finance-related allegations, Toensing alleged that Sorrell received campaign contributions from a law firm that he later hired on behalf of the state.

According to the investigation report, released last Friday after the Vermont Press Bureau first reported its findings Thursday, Toensing’s complaint “alleges violations of federal mail and wire fraud criminal statutes.”

The allegation said Sorrell solicited and received “campaign donations and other favors (travel expenses, for example) in exchange for him granting access to himself and hiring a particular law firm to represent the State as a plaintiff in MTBE gasoline additive litigation — to benefit the donors.”

According to one Seven Days report, a Texas-based law firm contributed $10,000 to Sorrell’s re-election bid at the same time it asked him to file a lawsuit against the oil and gas industry. Sorrell agreed to the suit and hired the firm to represent the state, meaning they would earn a share of whatever funds the state received as a result of the suit.

Little found that allegation to be beyond his investigative scope and authority and did not issue a ruling or recommendation. His report left open the possibility of an investigation by state or federal authorities, however.

“Investigation of the allegations contained in Count 5 of the complaint is beyond the scope of this investigation into campaign finance violations and would need to be done by an investigative body with appropriate jurisdiction, authority and resources,” the report states.

“No inferences one way or the other should be drawn from this concerning the accuracy of the Count 5 allegations,” the report also state.

Seven Days reported Wednesday that state police were investigating Sorrell. Waterman’s statement was emailed with a subject line that reads: “Vermont State Police clarification.”

Sorrell provided Seven Days with the sworn testimony he offered during the Little investigation. In the testimony Sorrell admits to accepting $10,000 in campaign contributions before listening to a request to consider suing the oil and gas industry.

“Just before sitting down to dinner, Mike [Messina, a broker for the law firm] gave me an envelope saying that he and the attorneys from the Texas firm [Baron & Budd] wished to contribute to my campaign for reelection,” Sorrell wrote in the affidavit. “I thanked them and accepted the envelope.”

The lawyers also “suggested they would come to Vermont at a future date to discuss the possibility of Vermont suing the oil and gas industry, if I was interested,” Sorrell wrote, according to Seven Days.

Sorrell’s office did file suit a few months later and hired the Baron & Budd firm, along with three others, to represent the state.

Sorrell told the Vermont Press Bureau last week that he did not break any laws and wants his sworn testimony to be provided to any agencies that launch a criminal investigation.

“I hope they also in referring it over to federal authorities give them my sworn testimony in writing and then orally. I’m happy to make that public. If federal authorities want to investigate, fine. I didn’t violate any criminal laws at all. If they wish to investigate I’ll cooperate with their investigation. I’m not worried about that — at all,” he said.

This story was originally published by the Vermont Press Bureau and is republished here under a partnership with the bureau.

Neal is a a reporter for the Vermont Press Bureau. He also files reports for Vermont Public Radio.
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