Did Sorrell Take Official Action to Punish Opponent's Donor? | Off Message

Did Sorrell Take Official Action to Punish Opponent's Donor?

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Attorney General Bill Sorrell - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Attorney General Bill Sorrell
An email obtained during an investigation of Attorney General Bill Sorrell suggests he sought to punish a donor to a rival’s campaign during the course of official business.

First disclosed in this week’s Fair Game political column, the email pertains to a September 2014 press conference organized by then-lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Dean Corren and attended by Sorrell. Standing in front of McCaffrey's Sunoco in Burlington, the two called for legislation requiring gasoline distributors to disclose pricing information to the attorney general’s office.

After the event, the head of a local business group raised concerns about Sorrell’s participation, prompting the AG to reply, “I care about the issue, not to mention the $4k a whole seller gave a prior opponent …”

The “whole seller” in question appears to be Skip Vallee, a political lightning rod whose Colchester-based business, R.L. Vallee, Inc., has been accused of driving up gas prices in Chittenden County. Now the Vermont chairman of Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) presidential campaign, Vallee has contributed generously to Republican candidates over the years, including President George W. Bush, who in 2005 appointed him ambassador to Slovakia.

In August 2012, Vallee and his wife, Denise, donated $4,000 to Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan’s Democratic primary campaign against Sorrell. Though Donovan came close to unseating Sorrell, he ended up losing the election by 714 votes, just 11 days after the Vallees made their contributions.

Forwarded a copy of the email, Vallee would not say whether he thought he was the target of Sorrell’s ire.

“You should ask General Sorrell,” he replied.

Sorrell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Had Sorrell sought retribution against a rival’s donor at a political event, it could have been considered politics as usual. But Sorrell has long claimed that he participated in the press conference in the course of his official duties.

“This was not a campaign rally,” Sorrell wrote in a sworn affidavit submitted in July 2015 to a panel of state’s attorneys investigating separate allegations against him. “Indeed, it was much like other issue-focused events I participated in during 2014 — as part of my job as Attorney General.”

The nature of the press conference became an issue last spring when Vermont Republican Party vice chair Brady Toensing accused the AG of failing to report Corren’s expenses at the event as in-kind contributions to Sorrell’s reelection campaign. In response, Sorrell argued that he did not have to disclose the information because he did not drop by McCaffrey’s as a political candidate.

“While Dean Corren may have treated it as a campaign event,” Sorrell’s lawyer, David Kirby, wrote last July in a separate filing, “attendance was simply part of General Sorrell’s job promoting public awareness of an issue and legislation addressed to that issue.”

A panel of state’s attorneys that investigated Toensing’s allegations agreed with the AG, writing in a report released last week that the press conference “was not staged as a Sorrell campaign event.”

Vallee declined to comment directly on the email, but he addressed it obliquely in a statement to Seven Days.

“It is never appropriate for an elected law enforcement official to settle political scores using the power granted to him as a guardian of the public trust,” Vallee wrote.

Beyond the Vallee reference, Sorrell’s email exchange provides an intriguing glimpse inside of Vermont's political ecosystem. The correspondence began with Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce president Tom Torti scolding Sorrell for attending the press conference.

“I'm sure you have heard about the level of displeasure Mazza feels about you standing with Corren,” Torti wrote, referring to Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle). “Just wanted to pass on what was mentioned to me.”

Mazza, a powerful figure in the Chittenden County political and business communities, is a staunch ally of Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. At the time, Corren was campaigning for Scott's job.

“I went out and talked with [Mazza] beforehand, before I committed to doing it,” Sorrell replied. “He said ‘you have to do what you have to do.’ I left on good terms. He's hosting a fundraiser for me. He called me a couple of hours later, suggesting I just give a quote for [the Corren campaign’s press] release. But in the interim, I'd committed to participate.”

Sorrell concluded: “I didn't endorse Corren. I care about the issue, not to mention the $4k a whole seller gave a prior opponent...”

Torti replied, “Just being the messenger …”

Sorrell turned the email and five others over to the state’s attorneys investigating him. Though the information was considered privileged, Sorrell voluntarily provided some of the documentation to Seven Days, upon request. 

Here is the email in full, with addresses redacted:

From: William Sorrell
Date: September 16, 2014 at 4:01:13 PM EDT
To: Tom Torti
Subject: Re: Gas, Corren, Mazza


Yup

Sent from my iPhone

On Sep 16, 2014, at 11:08 AM, Tom Torti wrote:

Just being the messenger….

From: William Sorrell
Sent: Tuesday, September 16, 2014 10:28 AM
To: Tom Torti
Subject: Re: Gas, Corren, Mazza


I went out and talked with him beforehand, before I committed to doing it. He said "you have to do what you have to do." I left on good terms. He's hosting a fundraiser for me. He called me a couple of hours later, suggesting I just give a quote for their release. But in the interim, I'd committed to participate.

I didn't endorse Corren. I care about the issue, not to mention the $4k a whole seller gave a prior opponent...

Sent from my iPhone

On Sep 16, 2014, at 7:15 AM, Tom Torti wrote:

I'm sure you have heard about the level of displeasure Mazza feels about you standing with Corren. Just wanted to pass on what was mentioned to me.
T



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