Attorney General Bill Sorrell Won't Seek Reelection

Sep 28, 2015

The longest-serving attorney general in Vermont history says he won’t seek reelection in 2016.

Bill Sorrell, who has won reelection nine times since being appointed to the office by then-Gov. Howard Dean in 1997, announced Monday afternoon that this term will be his last.

“I had plans to have this be my last term for pretty close to five years now actually,” Sorrell said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. “Now I’m just ready for a different chapter. I don’t know what that’s going to be, but I feel good.”

Sorrell’s announcement comes amid an independent investigation into allegations that the Democratic attorney general violated campaign finance law on numerous occasions. Sorrell earlier this year said he wouldn’t announce his future political plans until that probe was complete. But he said Monday that the case had dragged on longer than he’d anticipated.

“First I heard that investigation was going to be over before the end of the summer ... and that didn’t get done. We’ve cooperated fully and we’ll continue to cooperate fully in the investigation,” Sorrell says. “But I knew that the outcome of the investigation – one way or the other I expect to be cleared, (because) I’m not guilty – wasn’t going to affect my decision.”

Brady Toensing, the vice-chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, filed a formal complaint against Sorrell in April alleging that he illegally coordinated with a super PAC during his 2012 reelection bid, and that he engaged in “improper solicitation” of campaign donations from an out-of-state law firm he later enlisted in a class-action civil case filed by his office.

Tonesing’s complaint followed reports by Seven Days columnist Paul Heintz that detailed campaign contributions to Sorrell from a Texas law firm called Baron & Budd. Sorrell subsequently hired the firm to serve as outside counsel in a pollution case brought by the state of Vermont against more than two dozen fuel companies.

Sorrell says he doesn’t know the status of the investigation, being conducted by former House representative Tom Little, and says he hasn’t gotten any early previews of its findings.

“I don’t what their process is. I don’t know what the timing is. But I know what the facts are,” Sorrell says. “And the integrity of the office has been hugely important to me. I’ll be glad when the investigation is over. There are no smoking guns there that I’ve done anything in violation of the laws, and I hope to be vindicated.”

A panel of eight county state’s attorneys will review Little’s findings, and determine whether Sorrell committed any violations.

David Cahill, executive director of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, says there’s no timeline for the completion of the investigation, and that “the focus is on quality and a deliberative truth-finding process.”

“And that process is wholly independent of political considerations,” Cahill said Monday.

Cahill says the panel of state’s attorneys will review Little’s report, when he files it, and then “make a recommendation regarding the filing of a complaint, or a decision to file a complaint.”

Sorrell says his proudest legacy is the caliber of lawyers he’s brought into the attorney general’s office during his tenure.

He says his office has won well more than 90 percent of the cases it’s filed, and has “returned millions of dollars to Vermont consumers and hundreds and of millions to the Vermont treasury from successful enforcement efforts.”

“I think our environment is cleaner, I think people are safer as a consequence of the things that we’ve done, and I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done,” Sorrell says.

The only announced candidate to succeed Sorrell is Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan, who unsuccessfully challenged the incumbent in a 2012 Democratic primary.

Sorrell says he has yet to decide whether he’ll endorse anyone in the race to replace him.

“I want to see what the field looks like, and hear that discussion and debate about the future of the office, and we’ll see whether I weigh in,” Sorrell says.

In a written statement, Gov. Peter Shumlin praised Sorrell's service.

“Bill Sorrell has dedicated much of his professional life to serving Vermonters, protecting consumers, and ensuring justice is served,” Shumlin said. “From taking on big tobacco to protecting Vermont’s environment and health to fighting to ensure Vermonters have the right to know what is in their food, Bill Sorrell has consistently fought to protect Vermonters and make this state a better place. I want to thank him for his many years of service and I wish him all the best.”

This post has been updated to include comments from David Cahill and Gov. Peter Shumlin