- Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
- Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell
Last year the Vermont House established its first-ever ethics panel, prompted by concerns about potential conflicts of interest among its 150 members. But the smaller, clubbier Vermont Senate declined to follow suit.
"We really haven't talked about it," Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell (D-Windsor) said earlier this year. "I can't remember the last time there was something that even came close to a question of someone's ethics."
Now, with just weeks to go before the end of the legislative session, the Senate Committee on Government Operations is reconsidering that position. It's weighing whether to establish such a panel to ensure that senators follow the rules.
"I don't think there have been any issues," says Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), the committee's chair. "But I think the perception is we're unethical because we don't have an ethics committee."
Campbell himself might make a good test case for the panel — specifically the sequence of events that led him to lobby for and then land a job in the Windsor County state's attorney office.
The senate president was still in private practice when Vermont's 14 state's attorneys banded together last year to request five new deputy positions in response to a statewide increase in drug crimes. The counties most in need, according to a Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs' Association analysis of cases per attorney, were Rutland, Washington, Windsor, Addison and Chittenden — in that order.
Gov. Peter Shumlin proposed funding two fulltime positions in January 2014, and the House followed his lead in the budget it passed that March. Recognizing his office wouldn't make the cut, Windsor County State's Attorney Michael Kainen proposed splitting the two jobs into four half-time positions and lobbied his senators to support the plan.
Kainen lives up the street from Campbell in Quechee, and has been friends with the senator for 20 years. He says he particularly "pigeonholed" the pro tem.
"I said, 'Jeez, John, I'm drowning here. Is there anything you can do?'" Kainen recalls. "I see John all the time, so I probably whined a fair amount."
Campbell remembers driving by Kainen's house in April and pulling over to chat.
"We had a discussion that they were hurting big-time with the caseload," Campbell says. "No question that I advocated very strongly for Windsor County to get the state's attorney position."
In late April, according to documents obtained through a public records request, Campbell left a message for Kainen delivering the news that the Senate had funded four half-time positions in its version of the budget. But his work wasn't done: The proposal had to survive negotiations between the House and the Senate.
All three Senate Appropriations Committee members who served on the conference committee — Sens. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia), Dick Sears (D-Bennington) and Diane Snelling (R-Chittenden) — remember Campbell lobbying them for the Windsor position.
"Obviously, he communicated that he felt it was warranted," says Kitchel, who chairs the appropriations committee.
On May 10, the Senate signed off on a budget that created two new full-time positions and two half-time positions, pretty much guaranteeing that Windsor County would receive one. Two days later, according to the public records, Campbell dropped by Kainen's office in White River Junction, but missed the state's attorney.
At some point in the next three weeks — though neither man can recall the exact date — Campbell pulled over outside Kainen's house again and asked for the job he'd just helped to create.
"I told him if he gets one of the positions, I think I definitely would be interested in doing it," Campbell says. "And the rest is history."
Kainen never publicly posted the job, nor did he interview anybody else. He says he typically hires from among those he knows are interested. According to the Department of Human Resources, state's attorneys are not required to follow standard state hiring practices.
On June 4, the state's attorneys formally voted to allocate the new positions, and Kainen's office snagged one. By June 24, after a few informal conversations, Kainen offered Campbell the job. He started July 14.
Kainen says he saw Campbell as a catch. The pro tem had practiced law for decades, and he was filling a $30,545-a-year position for which Kainen would otherwise have had to hire a recent law school grad.
"I need someone who can take files and run," he says. "I don't have time to wipe your nose."
In a June 25 email to Bram Kranichfeld, who was then serving as executive director of the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs' Association, Kainen expressed another reason why it made sense to hire a prominent politician: "Furthermore, it can't hurt for him to know what we go through day in and day out."
Had Campbell decided to apply for the position before he advocated for its creation?
"The answer is no," he says.
Likewise, Kainen says Campbell's advocacy played no role in his eventual hiring.
"I don't think it crossed my mind that, 'Oh, gee, he helped me to get that position, so I owe it to him,'" Kainen says.
But Snelling, Campbell's Senate colleague, says she felt "distressed" — and used — when she learned Campbell had benefited from the actions he'd asked of her committee.
"I was very surprised and somewhat discouraged to hear that he had taken that job," she says. "It didn't seem right to me. It didn't seem right."
Situations like this illustrate the need for an ethics panel, according to Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), who runs the Republican caucus.
"I think anytime an appearance of impropriety is raised, the Senate ethics committee would be a wise tool to have," he says.
'The Usual Suspects'
Facing allegations that he broke the law, Attorney General Bill Sorrell reversed course Tuesday and said he'd "welcome" an investigation of his campaign activities.
The AG has been under fire since last week, when Charlotte attorney and Vermont Republican Party vice chair Brady Toensing filed a complaint alleging multiple campaign finance infractions.
Hours later, Gov. Peter Shumlin took him up on the offer and said he planned to appoint independent counsel to investigate the matter.
There's no shortage of material.
A new analysis of Sorrell's recent fundraising disclosures shows that the AG raised $43,100 during his 2014 reelection race from out-of-state attorneys, law firms and corporations — many of which were soliciting his office at the time. That's more than three-quarters of the $56,365 he raised during the two-year campaign cycle.
Sorrell collected much of that money while attending lavish conferences sponsored by the Democratic Attorneys General Association, the National Association of Attorneys General and the Conference of Western Attorneys General. Those organizations, which are funded by corporate and legal interests, paid for most of Sorrell's expenses.
Also attending, according to emails and other records obtained through public records requests, were a band of former AGs and lobbyists whom Sorrell referred to endearingly as "the usual suspects."
According to incomplete scheduling records, Sorrell spent at least 138.5 days traveling outside Vermont in 2013 and 2014, not including vacations and other time off. While a handful of the 38 trips documented in the records pertained to official state business — such as trips to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress or meet with Vermont's delegation — the vast majority did not.
Sorrell's travels included a six-day CWAG conference in Park City, Utah; a five-day CWAG conference in Hawaii; and a seven-day trip to Istanbul for a symposium on "rule of law and justice." The latter was fully financed by the multinational law firm DLA Piper and the Turkish law firm YükselKarknKüçük.
The AG was hardly slumming it. While on the road, he stayed at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel in California and Ritz-Carlton hotels in three states. A NAAG trip to Michigan's Mackinac Island came with a horse-drawn carriage ride to the Grand Hotel.
According to Sorrell's itineraries, he spent plenty of time at the conferences attending seminars, speaking on panels and meeting with his fellow AGs. But he also found time to recreate. A DAGA trip to Kentucky included an afternoon at Churchill Downs; a NAAG conference in Milwaukee promised a Green Bay Packers game in "private or corporate suites."
Sorrell held fundraisers during some of the conferences and met with lobbyists at others, the records show.
During a weeklong CWAG event in Colorado Springs in July 2013, DBA International executive director Jan Stieger arranged a game of golf with Sorrell, while LegalZoom general counsel Chas Rampenthal, a DAGA donor, asked to sit with Sorrell at dinner. He also met with Motion Picture Association of America lobbyist Vanstan Stevenson, who has contributed to Sorrell's campaigns.
As the New York Times reported last December, the MPAA has teamed up with Microsoft and other tech companies to convince state AGs to take action against Google over copyright and privacy concerns. Former Rhode Island attorney general Patrick Lynch, another Sorrell donor, represents the tech companies through the industry trade group Fair Search. In correspondence with Sorrell, he repeatedly urged the AG to take on Google.
Lynch, who often hosts dinners at the AG conferences, wasn't the only one.
On January 16, 2014, former Mississippi attorney general Mike Moore and former Washington State attorney general Rob McKenna, both of whom represent other tech companies, met with Sorrell in Vermont to discuss "Google & E-cigs," according to his schedule.
Four days later, Sorrell flew to Denver on the state dime for a meeting between Google general counsel Kent Walker and several like-minded AGs who had taken on the search giant. According to an agenda, the AGs planned to demand that Google delist or demote "rogue offender websites" from its search rankings.
Days later, Moore donated $1,000 to Sorrell's campaign, and Lynch gave $750. A week after that, McKenna's firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe donated $500.
Sorrell, who did not respond to a request for comment, discussed his meeting with Moore and McKenna in a March 2014 interview with Seven Days. But at the time, he mentioned only that they discussed the regulation of e-cigarettes.
"I'm sure someone was paying them to be there and have the meeting," Sorrell said in the interview. "But these are people who I've served with and are friends of mine. And I'm not for sale for $500."
Another of Lynch's clients, Caesars Entertainment Corporation, has strongly opposed new regulations on internet gambling, one of its core businesses. In January 2014, Lynch sent Sorrell several emails urging him to refrain from signing a letter in support of the regulations.
On the other side of the fight was Dickstein Shapiro lobbyist Lori Kalani, who represented casino magnate and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson. On January 22, at the same Orlando DAGA conference at which Lynch contributed to Sorrell's campaign, Kalani and three colleagues donated a total of $2,000.
On January 27, Sorrell emailed Kalani to inform her that he'd signed on to the anti-gambling letter. "Great seeing you and chatting a bit in FL," he wrote. "See you soon in NYC." To Lynch, he wrote, "I know there is a lot of $ at stake for a lot of people, including the gamblers. The letter asks the Congress to consider revisiting the issue of the limitation to sports betting. The request seems reasonable to me."
A week later, on February 3, Kalani's firm flew Sorrell to New York City to participate in a panel discussion on so-called patent trolls. Sorrell has been a leader in the fight against such entities, which threaten to sue other companies for patent infringement in order to obtain licensing fees. In May 2013, he filed an unprecedented lawsuit against patent troll MPHJ Technologies, pleasing the company's many corporate victims.
In New York City, Kalani's firm put Sorrell up at the InterContinental New York Barclay. Her colleague, Bernie Nash, who calls himself "the godfather of State Attorney General work," took the AG out to dinner.
When Sorrell had to pay for a $34.50 hotel breakfast with his own credit card, Kalani's firm, Dickstein Shapiro, promised to reimburse him. In March, Kalani sent the state a $513.87 check to pick up the tab for airfare and cabs.
In an interview with Seven Days last month, Sorrell explained his relationship with Dickstein Shapiro: "Look, there are some members of that firm who I consider to be personal friends, who come out of the AG ranks." One of them, JB Kelly, was on his way to Vermont that very week to meet with him, Sorrell said at the time.
"Bottom line: I'm not for sale," he said. "They know that. If there was ever any suggestion that I should do something in a case or not do something in a case because of campaign contributions, that would be the end of that conversation."
Sorrell's patent troll work has won him audiences with many corporate leaders. At a February 2014 NAAG conference in Washington, D.C., former secretary of the interior Ken Salazar invited him to speak to his colleagues at the law firm WilmerHale. The firm brought in some of its biggest clients, such as Apple and Cisco Systems, to attend.
That summer, McKenna, the former Washington AG, invited Sorrell to California to speak at a Silicon Valley symposium on patent trolls. He promised that many of his firm's clients, including Apple, Facebook, Oracle and Microsoft, would be at the September event.
"One last point: Orrick will, of course, cover your travel expenses, and those of a staff member, if you are able to attend the symposium," McKenna offered on behalf of his firm in July.
Sorrell sounded amenable, but he upped the ante.
"Rather than stay over Wednesday night also, would your firm be willing to cover my airfare from CA to Portland, OR and then to Philly on Saturday or Sunday (no hotel or meal expenses in OR)?" the AG wrote. "I'll be going on to Philly for DAGA and DAGA can pay to get me back to VT. Let me know on this."
Not a problem, McKenna responded. He booked a tour for Sorrell at Facebook's headquarters, bought him a room at Sofitel San Francisco Bay and reimbursed the state $602.50 for other trip expenses. A month after Sorrell's visit, Facebook donated $2,000 to his reelection campaign.
Sorrell's travels have also been good for DAGA's coffers.
During his 2012 race against Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, the Democratic organization bought nearly $200,000 worth of television advertisements in Vermont through an independent-expenditure political action committee. Sorrell said at the time that he did not coordinate with the super PAC, but he has since returned the favor.
Three times in 2014, Sorrell agreed to "prospecting" trips to recruit donors to DAGA: in D.C., Philadelphia and Connecticut.
"We will be hosting 2 renewal/prospecting events that day — lunch in Stamford and dinner in Hartford," DAGA fundraiser Lauren Bergmann wrote Sorrell in August 2014. "It promises to be a fruitful day for DAGA and we would love for you to participate."
But when a NAAG representative invited him to take part in an international fellowship program in New York City in July 2014, the AG hesitated.
"Please know I appreciate the invitation but I want to be clear that I don't want or need another trip just for a trip's sake," Sorrell wrote.
In the end, he just couldn't pass up the opportunity.