Editorial: Sorrell Exonerates Himself

Thursday, April 23, 2015
Earlier this month, we assailed Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell for bringing a “problematic and punitive” enforcement action against Dean Corren, a publicly funded candidate for lieutenant governor in last fall’s election. Sorrell alleges Corren violated the state’s campaign finance laws, and the attorney general is seeking what we deemed to be a disproportionate $72,000 penalty for a $225 transgression.

Sorrell this week took an entirely different tack, brushing off detailed allegations of official misconduct and campaign finance violations by another candidate. We doubt, however, that this is the result of an epiphany on the part of the attorney general, who is serving his ninth term. The candidate in question is him.

In a letter dated April 19, Brady Toensing, a lawyer and vice chairman of the state Republican Party, called on Sorrell to appoint an independent counsel to investigate four counts of alleged misconduct, most of them based on reporting done recently by Paul Heintz of Seven Days, the Burlington-area alternative weekly. These include improperly coordinating campaign expenditures with a supposedly independent super Pac; failing to meet certain campaign-finance reporting requirements; and accepting campaign contributions in return for taking an official action. In the latter case, Toensing alleges that Sorrell accepted campaign contributions from representatives of a Texas law firm and later signed on to a lawsuit against 29 oil and gas companies, with the firm serving as outside counsel for the state and potentially reaping large contingency fees.

For his part, Sorrell said that he was “not about to waste a lot of taxpayer money responding to (Toensing’s) call for an independent counsel. . . . It’s unfortunate that there are questions about whether there was undue influence. I know there was no undue influence.”

We guess it’s reassuring that in his heart, Sorrell knows he’s right. He and Toensing are occasional sparring partners when it comes to campaign finance laws, so perhaps his reaction is natural. Besides that, the whole system by which political money is raised, spent and reported (or not) in the United States amounts to little more than legalized corruption in any case. It’s hard to imagine that Sorrell would run afoul of existing laws.

On the other hand, the allegations are not so far-fetched that “take my word for it” is an adequate response from the state’s chief law enforcement officer, whose position and power are such that his or her integrity needs to be above reproach. And there ought to be no office in a democratic government that is not subject to some independent oversight and scrutiny. This is especially true in Vermont, which is politically — for the present at least — a one-party state.

If the matter is as frivolous as Sorrell asserts and he is concerned about wasting taxpayer dollars, how about stopping short of appointing a full-blown independent counsel and asking the 14 elected state’s attorneys to select a respected retired judge to review the record as it exists so far and determine whether it raises enough questions to merit a full inquiry? If not, then no great amount of public money has been spent, and Sorrell need not be concerned that his reputation is under a cloud.

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