Oil Baron Seeks Sanders Aide's Testimony in Price-Fixing Suit | Off Message

Bernie Sanders
Oil Baron Seeks Sanders Aide's Testimony in Price-Fixing Suit


Skip Vallee in his home - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Skip Vallee in his home
The Vermont gasoline company at the center of a three-year-old price-fixing lawsuit is seeking to depose a spokesperson for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and obtain documents from the senator's office.

The company, R.L. Vallee, subpoenaed Sanders aide Daniel McLean last month and demanded a wide range of internal communications — some pertaining to the lawsuit and others to political matters.

In a response last Thursday in U.S. District Court, the senator's office argued that federal employees such as McLean could not be subpoenaed in their official capacities and that the company's request was an overbroad "fishing expedition."

The competing motions reignite a long-simmering feud between Sanders and R.L. Vallee's CEO, Rodolphe "Skip" Vallee, a former U.S. ambassador and Vermont Republican Party official. The senator and his staff have accused Vallee of "ripping off consumers" and being a "junior varsity version of the Koch brothers." Vallee, in turn, has run television advertisements accusing Sanders' wife, Jane O'Meara Sanders, of wrongdoing and publicly contemplated running against the senator.

Indeed, among the documents Vallee's company is seeking, according to the subpoena, are those pertaining to "the possible 2012 or 2018 United States Senate candidacy" of Vallee or former Republican governor Jim Douglas — including communications with O'Meara Sanders.

Most of the requested documents, however, relate to the underlying legal dispute: a $100 million class-action lawsuit alleging that R.L. Vallee and other Vermont gas station owners engaged in price-fixing. The suit, filed in state court in June 2015 by a group of Vermont consumers represented by a national law firm, has been in the discovery phase for roughly two years.

In a written statement to Seven Days, R.L. Vallee attorney Tristram Coffin suggested that Sanders had played a role in the suit.

"We requested information from Senator Sanders’s office regarding its involvement in a baseless lawsuit led by out-of-state class action attorneys against Vermont companies," Coffin wrote. "Senator Sanders has repeatedly demanded transparency in public institutions, yet he now asks a court to block access to evidence in his possession and relevant to the meritless lawsuit."

Sanders spokesperson Josh Miller-Lewis said that neither the senator nor McLean would comment on the matter.

The subpoena, which was issued November 9, seeks nearly seven years' worth of documents in McLean's possession involving parties to the lawsuit and a variety of Vermont political players, including former attorney general Bill Sorrell, 2014 lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Dean Corren and state Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle). It also alludes to alleged meetings between Sanders' office, Sorrell's office and a law firm representing the lawsuit's plaintiffs.

In last week's motion to quash the subpoena, the senator's attorneys called it "a wholesale invasion into [Sanders'] congressional files" and estimated that it would force McLean to turn over "thousands" of documents. "Remarkably, over half of the categories for which documents are sought are not limited to the subject matter of this suit," lawyers for the Office of Senate Legal Counsel, which represented Sanders, wrote.

Sanders' lawyers argued that R.L. Vallee had not negotiated in good faith for the documents and had waited until the end of the discovery period to demand them. Noting that Sanders has "a longstanding legislative interest" in low gas prices, the lawyers wrote that such a subpoena "directly threatens the Senator's legitimate exercise of his legislative duties and the due functioning of his legislative office."

R.L. Vallee has until late next week to respond to Sanders' motion, at which point Judge William Sessions III could schedule a hearing on the matter.

Read the filings below: