- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Attorney General William Sorrell on Monday rejected a request by a Republican Party official that Sorrell appoint an independent counsel to investigate his political practices and whether he violated campaign finance laws.

The attorney general, whose office oversees enforcement of campaign finance laws, defended his campaign practices and said in an interview with The Associated Press that he was “not about to waste a lot of taxpayer money responding to his call for an independent counsel.”

Brady Toensing, vice chairman of the state Republican Party, accused the Democrat in a letter dated April 19 of “long-term and chronic flouting” of the laws. Toensing attached a four-count complaint to the letter, pointing to what he called illegal activities by the attorney general during the 2012 and 2014 campaigns.

The complaint was based on reporting by Seven Days, a Burlington newspaper, and by The New York Times. It alleges possible violations of anti-bribery laws, illegal coordination between a Sorrell campaign and a super PAC, failure to report legally required detail on campaign expenses, and improperly using state resources.

Sorrell denied any wrongdoing.

Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, said Monday the circumstances pointed to “at least the possibility of there being a need for an investigation, and our current system’s failure to account for that.” He said the state may need a law saying who should handle an investigation when the attorney general is the target.

In his complaint, Toensing alleges Sorrell took campaign contributions from private lawyers and later, as the state’s top lawyer, joined them in a lawsuit against 29 oil and gas companies. Seven Days reported this month that Sorrell met with representatives of the Dallas law firm Baron and Budd at a Washington, D.C., fundraiser in late 2013, where they donated $10,000 to Sorrell’s campaign and asked for a meeting to discuss Vermont possibly signing onto the lawsuit, which the state later did.

Toensing alleges Sorrell may have violated Vermont law that bars public officials from seeking or accepting gifts with the understanding that they will result in an official action favorable to the donor.

Sorrell said he had been advised by his staff and the state Agency of Natural Resources to select Baron & Budd as one of the law firms that the state would partner with in the suit.

“It’s unfortunate that there are questions about whether there was undue influence,” Sorrell said. “I know there was no undue influence.”

The complaint also alleges Sorrell’s 2012 campaign improperly coordinated activities with a super PAC set up to help Sorrell beat back a primary challenge by Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan. Toensing said former presidential candidate and governor, Howard Dean, who appointed Sorrell in 1997, “provided strategic advice” to both Sorrell and the PAC, Citizens for Justice and Fairness. Dean’s “role with both entities allowed (the PAC) to make improper coordinated expenditures with the Sorrell Campaign,” Toensing said.

By law, super PACs must operate separately from a candidate’s campaign.

Dean did not immediately respond to a message left at his home or an email to his office. Sorrell denied any wrongdoing, saying that the first he knew of a PAC campaign ad on his behalf was when a reporter called to ask him about it.

The complaint also alleges Sorrell failed to report all legally-required detail on campaign expenditures. But Sorrell, who has been re-elected every two years since 1998, said he has taken the same approach for expenditures in past campaigns, as other candidates have, and no one has questioned this practice.

In addition, the complaint accuses Sorrell of improperly using state resources and failing to report a campaign contribution. It refers to a joint appearance with Dean Corren, an unsuccessful 2014 candidate for lieutenant governor, outside a Burlington gas station to highlight high gas prices.

Sorrell said he participated in the event as part of his consumer-protection work as attorney general, not as a political candidate.

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