Former Vermont attorney general Bill Sorrell must submit to a sworn deposition in a legal case regarding his use of a private email account for official business. On Wednesday, Chittenden County Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout ordered Sorrell’s participation, but she set limits on the scope of the deposition.
The Energy & Environment Legal Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that often represents the interests of the fossil fuel industry, is seeking Sorrell’s records and communications as part of its lawsuit against multiple attorneys general, alleging that they engaged in a legal conspiracy against the industry.
Sorrell had failed to show up for a previous court-ordered deposition on the advice of current Attorney General T.J. Donovan. The limited deposition is to take place on Monday, and, according to Donovan, “We have every indication that Bill Sorrell will appear and be deposed.”
Questioning will be limited to documents and correspondence in Sorrell’s private email account that relate specifically to E&E Legal’s request for public records. Donovan claimed that a broader deposition would violate Sorrell’s privacy rights.
“This was never a fight over a deposition,” Donovan said. “It’s about creating guidelines and parameters, balancing transparency and privacy interests.”
Both he and E&E Legal attorney Matthew Hardin claimed victory after Teachout’s decision.
“The deposition is not limited in any way that matters,” said Hardin. “I’m not disappointed that I can’t get [Sorrell’s] communications with his yoga instructor.”
Judge Teachout’s ruling appears to lend support to future requests for private emails and records.
“Before electronic correspondence and documents,” she wrote, “if a public official kept paper work correspondence and documents in a desk drawer at home … the fact that he or she did that would not result in such documents being exempt from public access … The fact that the format of documents is now electronic should not change public access to government documents.”
While Teachout lifted a stay on Sorrell’s deposition, she continued a stay on E&E Legal’s request to depose three of Sorrell’s assistant attorneys general,
“who are not parties” in the case.
When state employees leave office, they are supposed to turn over all public records, documents and correspondence to the state archive. “We want to make sure,” noted Hardin, particularly in the case of purely digital documents in an employee’s personal possession. “We don’t know Vermont’s process for ensuring that all documents are turned over,” he said.
Donovan confirmed that all relevant public records must be archived, but when asked if it applied to digital records held privately, he said “I don’t have an answer for that.” Which makes it appear as though Hardin has a point.