Attorney General Bill Sorrell (center) with supporters on Election Day 2014.
The vice chairman of the Vermont Republican Party on Sunday called on Attorney General Bill Sorrell to appoint an independent counsel to investigate whether the AG himself broke the law.
In a letter and accompanying complaint, Charlotte attorney Brady Toensing alleged four counts of misconduct related to the nine-term Democrat's campaign fundraising and spending. The allegations range from failure to properly report campaign expenditures to improper solicitation and receipt of donations in exchange for official action.
In the letter, Toensing accused Sorrell of "long-term and chronic flouting of Vermont's campaign finance laws." Because the AG serves as the state's chief law-enforcement officer, he wrote, Sorrell has "been able to act with impunity," despite engaging in conduct that "constitutes clear violations of Vermont law."
He concluded: "Appointment of an independent counsel is necessary to restore and maintain the integrity of your office."
Sorrell, who could not immediately be reached for comment Monday morning, has previously denied wrongdoing related to the allegations, most of which stem from recent reporting by Seven Days.
This is not the first time Toensing has sparred with Sorrell.
A partner with the Washington, D.C., firm diGenova & Toensing, he defended former lieutenant governor Brian Dubie against campaign finance charges brought by Sorrell after Dubie's 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Toensing also represented an aggrieved neighbor of Gov. Peter Shumlin in a high-profile 2013 real estate dispute. He was elected vice chairman of the party in November of that year.
The toughest charges in Toensing's nine-page complaint relate to a lawsuit Sorrell filed against 29 oil and gas companies in June 2014 with assistance from Dallas law firm Baron & Budd.
As Seven Days reported last week, brokers for the firm met with Sorrell at a New Orleans conference in December 2013 to solicit Vermont's involvement in the case. A week later, Baron & Budd representatives donated $10,000 to Sorrell's reelection campaign at a Washington, D.C., fundraising event during which, according to Sorrell, the firm's representatives requested a meeting to discuss the matter. Within months, Sorrell decided to sue and signed on Baron & Budd as outside counsel. The firm and one of its brokers, Mike Messina, signed a contract guaranteeing both a share of the winnings if the state prevailed.
According to Toensing, those actions could violate Vermont's anti-bribery law, under which a public official "shall not, directly or indirectly, corruptly, ask, demand, exact, solicit, accept, receive or agree to receive a gift or gratuity ... with the understanding that he or she will be influenced thereby in any finding, decision, report or opinion in any matter within his or her official capacity or employment."
Toensing wrote, "If found guilty of violations of the fraud and bribery charges, General Sorrell would be subject to significant criminal and civil penalties under either federal or state law."
Two of Toensing's accusations relate to Sorrell's compliance with Vermont's campaign finance disclosure rules. As Seven Days reported two weeks ago, the AG has routinely paid for campaign expenses out of his own pocket and then reimbursed himself from his campaign account. By doing so, he has avoided disclosing what he has bought and who he has paid. In just four years, Sorrell reimbursed himself 16 times for a total of $18,542 in expenditures.
According to Toensing, the AG also failed to report in-kind contributions from 2014 lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Dean Corren, with whom he held a September 2014 press conference at a Burlington gas station. As Seven Days reported three weeks ago, Corren sent Sorrell copies of campaign material he planned to print for the event, but the AG never reported the expense as a contribution. Sorrell has denied that the press conference constituted a campaign event.
Toensing's final charge dates back to the 2012 Democratic primary election, during which Sorrell defeated Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan by just 714 votes. In the final weeks of the campaign, a political action committee established by the Democratic Attorneys General Association spent nearly $200,000 defending Sorrell's record in television advertising and direct mail.
At the time, Donovan and Republican nominee Jack McMullen both questioned whether Sorrell improperly coordinated the expenditures with the super PAC through former governor Howard Dean, who voiced the TV ads and also advised Sorrell's campaign. Jack Lindley, then the chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, filed several complaints, but Sorrell, Shumlin and Addison County State's Attorney David Fenster declined to investigate.
In Sunday's letter, Toensing referred to Sorrell's enforcement of the state's campaign finance laws against Corren and Dubie.
"If any other public official faced these accusations and this evidence, your office would have launched an investigation long ago," Toensing wrote in his letter. "In fact, you have investigated and brought enforcement actions against entities and individuals based on far less evidence and a far broader application of Vermont's campaign finance laws."