- PAUL HEINTZ
- Attorney General Bill Sorrell
Two weeks ago, Attorney General Bill Sorrell's office filed a motion in Vermont Superior Court to allow Albuquerque attorney Michael Messina to represent the state in a groundwater contamination lawsuit against 29 oil and gas companies.
Routine though it appeared, the filing raised David Cleary's hackles.
For months, the Rutland attorney has been questioning Sorrell's relationship with Messina and his wife, former New Mexico attorney general Patricia Madrid — both prominent contributors to Sorrell's reelection campaigns.
In July, Cleary wrote the AG's office to complain that the state's contract with Messina to help litigate the groundwater case might amount to an "unlawful" sweetheart deal to pay the couple back for brokering the case. As evidence, Cleary pointed to the fact that, since Sorrell filed suit in June 2014, Messina had not "entered an appearance, signed any pleadings, motions or memoranda, or participated in any hearings."
Suddenly Messina seemed to be taking an interest in the case he was supposed to be litigating.
"The filing, at this late date, after objections were raised to his being paid for apparently not doing anything — it just is troubling," Cleary says. "Unfortunately, it has all the earmarks of very serious backfilling."
Messina and Madrid's dealings with Sorrell are at the heart of an ongoing investigation into allegations that the AG took official action in exchange for campaign contributions.
Last April, Charlotte attorney and Vermont GOP vice chair Brady Toensing filed multiple complaints against Sorrell based largely on reporting by Seven Days. In response, Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed Shelburne attorney Tom Little to serve as independent counsel and investigate the matter.
Sorrell, a Democrat, announced in September that he would retire at the end of his term.
After several delays, Little's report "is nearly complete" and should be released next month, according to Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs executive director David Cahill, who is managing the inquiry.
Messina and Madrid's involvement in the matter appears to have begun in December 2013, according to records obtained by Seven Days. That's when the couple met with Sorrell at the New Orleans Ritz-Carlton to convince him to sue the oil and gas companies over their use of the gasoline additive MTBE.
Madrid, who had forged a friendship with Sorrell during her days as an AG, later told the New York Times that she was working as a broker for Baron & Budd, a Texas law firm that specializes in MTBE cases. She expected to earn a fee for selling Sorrell on the suit.
A week after the New Orleans confab, during a fundraising event in Washington, D.C., Messina and those associated with Baron & Budd contributed $10,000 to Sorrell's reelection campaign. Sorrell told Seven Days last spring that the attorneys discussed "the possibility of Vermont filing suit" during the fundraiser — and asked for a meeting with his office.
More recently, Sorrell explained why he thought Messina and Baron & Budd made the donations.
"I think they hoped that we would take seriously their requests that we consider MTBE litigation and that we consider hiring them," Sorrell told VTDigger.org's Mark Johnson last month. "Yeah, I don't think this was charity."
Within months of the D.C. fundraiser, Messina, Madrid and their clients flew to Vermont — and Sorrell decided to sue. In May 2014, his office signed a contract with Baron & Budd, the Law Office of L. Michael Messina and two other firms to represent the state. The contract stipulated that, if they prevailed, the firms would split 25 percent of any money Vermont collected. That could amount to a fortune, given that New Hampshire recently won more than $350 million in verdicts and settlements in a similar case.
Sorrell has long maintained that he played no role in the selection of outside counsel. Last spring, he even claimed to Seven Days that he "was unaware Mike Messina is mentioned in the contract." But public records show that he spoke with Messina over the phone in March 2014 and met with a Baron & Budd partner the next month.
According to Chief Assistant Attorney General Bill Griffin, Sorrell does not remember the specific phone call with Messina but recalls speaking with him "in that general time frame" about the potential suit — not about who would represent the state.
Sorrell has also maintained that his office hired the most experienced MTBE litigators in the country. That may be true of three of the firms, but not of Messina's, according to Cleary.
"I can find no evidence that attorney Messina has ever filed or prosecuted an MTBE case, 'nationally' or otherwise, much less with 'success,' as claimed by Sorrell," Cleary wrote in his July complaint, which Seven Days obtained through a public records request. Messina, Madrid, Baron & Budd and Sorrell did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Cleary went on to allege that the contract might violate the Vermont Rules of Professional Conduct, which govern attorneys. He cited a rule that bars lawyers from sharing in the proceeds of a case if they fail to assume "joint responsibility for the representation."
Given that Messina was not playing an active role in the MTBE suit, Cleary argued, his inclusion in the contract — and in the potential award — was "in reality a thinly disguised and improper 'broker fee' to him and/or his spouse for linking Sorrell up with Baron & Budd."
Another provision in the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits an attorney from accepting a "government legal engagement" if he or she "makes a political contribution or solicits political contributions for the purpose of obtaining or being considered for that type of legal engagement or appointment."
In response to Cleary's letter, Griffin wrote in September that the Rutland attorney's concerns were "based on some misinformation and misimpressions." Sorrell's office was already considering filing suit before the New Orleans meeting, he maintained, and Messina had been added to the contract "at the request of" the other firms. Furthermore, Griffin argued, "given that this litigation is at an early stage," Messina might still become involved with the case.
Asked this week why Messina had finally entered an appearance in court, Griffin said the Albuquerque attorney had done so at Griffin's suggestion "due to the inferences" drawn by Cleary and others.
Though Griffin argued in his September letter to Cleary that Sorrell had "followed proper procedures," he also admitted the obvious: "David, I will grant you that life would be simpler if some campaign contributions had not been given or received."
They may be running for office in Vermont, but two statewide Democratic candidates have been traveling to Washington, D.C., to raise campaign cash.
During a three-day work trip to the capital last week, Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan carved out a couple of hours on Wednesday to be fêted at a fundraiser.
"It was a good event. Nothing fancy," Donovan reports, noting with pride that the venue, the Big Board, didn't charge a room fee. "We brought our Yankee frugality with us."
Donovan, who is running to succeed Sorrell as attorney general, says he raised "five grand, maybe six grand" at the event, which was organized by a trio of Vermonters with ties to D.C.: attorney Faisal Gill, management consultant Chris Loso and union heavy Matt Vinci. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.) even dropped by.
"These guys are my friends," Donovan says. "There's a big Vermont contingent in D.C., and criminal justice reform is a national issue. I was grateful for people's support. We had a good time."
Donovan was in town for an Association of Prosecuting Attorneys conference and paid for the trip with drug-forfeiture money. He says he's already reached out to the Secretary of State's Office to determine how his campaign can reimburse the state for the portion of the trip it deems political.
Two weeks from now, gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne will similarly head to D.C. for his own campaign fundraiser — this one held at the law and lobbying firm Baker & McKenzie.
Congressman Jim Himes (D-Conn.) will host the shindig. Baker attorney David Lashway offered up his firm's office for the occasion.
Like Donovan, Dunne says he has no qualms about raising money inside the Beltway.
"It is a place where one goes to do fundraising," he says. "There is a community of expat Vermonters who are in Washington, D.C., as well as people who believe it's important to support future leadership in our country. And I'm delighted to be participating in that."
Since she took a job more than two decades ago at Maine Public Broadcasting, Charlotte Albright estimates she's reported roughly 7,000 radio stories. Now, after eight years at Vermont Public Radio — first as a freelancer and, most recently, as a full-time Upper Valley and Northeast Kingdom correspondent — she's finally putting down the microphone.
"I really do love writing radio scripts, but every seven or eight years I get an itch," Albright says.
That itch has led her to Dartmouth College, where she plans to join an in-house team of writers who cover campus research and happenings for college publications. Having earned a doctorate in literature years ago, Albright says she's looking forward to returning to academia — and making it more accessible to others.
According to VPR news director John Dillon, the station is searching for a replacement.
Farther down the Connecticut River, Brattleboro radio legend Tim Arsenault is also preparing to leave the airwaves — but he's doing so to run for public office.
Arsenault, who goes by the name Tim Johnson on-air, got his start in the biz in 1973, when the Brattleboro Union High School senior landed a part-time gig at WKVT-FM. For the past 18 years, he's served as news director at WTSA-FM, where he arrives weekdays at 4 a.m. to host its morning show.
After 18 years as town moderator, the lifelong Vernon resident plans to run for another local office this winter, though he won't reveal which one.
Arsenault already sounds like a candidate. Referring to last year's closing of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, he says, "I just think we need to, as a community, work on both right-sizing and really taking a sense of pride in who we are — and not getting down on ourselves."
Arsenault's retirement is just the latest in a series of changes in Windham County's media ecosystem. In June, the Brattleboro Reformer and its sister papers — the Bennington Banner and the Manchester Journal — laid off a slew of newsroom staffers.
In response, the Commons, a nonprofit weekly serving much of Windham County, announced an ambitious plan earlier this month to eventually double its staff. It's hoping to capitalize on the "amazing, dramatic uptick" in advertising revenue it's realized in the past year, according to editor Jeff Potter.
"What we have discovered is that, at least with the layoffs that the Reformer had earlier this year, the community itself has been looking and saying, 'What is going on here?'" he says.
To prepare for the "potential demise of the daily newspaper," Potter says, he hopes to beef up the Commons' newsroom staff and bolster its online reporting.
Currently, the paper has two editors and three reporters — including Mike Faher, a casualty of the Reformer layoffs and now a joint employee of the Commons and VTDigger. Eventually, Potter would like to have as many as 10 reporters and photographers "covering the heck out of this county," the way the Reformer did in the 1980s.
To finance such an operation, the paper aims to increase its membership base of 500 people to 800. The Thomas Thompson Trust has pledged to match $15,000 worth of new donations.
Says Potter, "This is an enormous opportunity for a huge community experiment in taking back local control of local news."