Bill Sorrell served as Vermont's attorney general from 1997 until just a couple of days into 2017, when new Attorney General T.J. Donovan took office.
Sorrell spoke to Vermont Edition recently to look back on his tenure as attorney general, as well as to look ahead at what's next. (Listen to the full interview in the audio link above.)
Accomplishments in office
"I feel so very fortunate that I was able for just under 20 years to hold this hugely important office and to try to enhance the health and safety of Vermont and Vermonters. ... I was so pleased and honored to have the opportunity to do that," Sorrell said.
"And what's been so fulfilling to me is the caliber of people – lawyers and investigators and other support staff – who are interested in doing public interest law and have brought great intellect and passion and integrity to it. And so being able to attract and retain people whom I just respect so much, who want to do the right thing – just, I look in the mirror and [am] just proud of that."
Sorrell discussed his office's work on specific issues, including:
- GMO labeling
- Automobile emissions standards
- Child pornography
Job requirements vs. personal beliefs
Sorrell says there were some instances of issues or cases where he had to represent the state, but that went against his own personal beliefs.
"In cases where it's judges who are going to make decisions or the Public Service Board or others, the state deserves to be well represented and then let the decision makers make their decisions," Sorrell said. "And there were times when I defended laws, or we defended laws, that had I been a legislator I might not have been supportive of."
Sorrell said he "never once" felt that his job was done any less forcefully when it came to a policy he didn't agree with. "That wouldn't be fair to the office. It wouldn't be consistent with what I see the duties are," Sorrell explained.
"And yet under our system, the attorney general in 98 percent of the cases decides what the state's position is going to be there ... and I always took that really seriously," Sorrell said. "It wasn't just first, 'Well what do I wish it was.' It's - this law's been passed by the Legislature, signed by a governor and deserves to have a fair hearing in court if challenged."
Allegations of misconduct
Particularly during his last two election cycles, "pay-for-play" allegations were brought against Sorrell that questioned if the work of his office was too close to some people who made campaign contribution to him. Sorrell spoke about these allegations and subsequent investigations, adding that in spite of them, he doesn't believe his legacy has been tarnished.
"I was never worried that when there was a full and fair investigation – as opposed to just a political hatchet man making these allegations – I was not worried that the facts or the law would show that I had done anything but was of a very high caliber of integrity and going about my work," Sorrell said.
"And I tell you, there wasn't anybody in my office that ever ever questioned it because they just saw it day in, day out, and the kind of ethic and standard that I expected of everyone. And do I wish it hadn't happened? Sure. It wasn't fun. But you make enemies in this business when you enforce the laws, and when you enforce them against some powerful parties, there's going to be blowback."
See editor's note below.
What lies ahead for the attorney general's office
"I think my successor T.J. Donovan and other AGs, particularly your elected Democrats, are going to have any number of real challenges to exercise our rights as states and to try to make sure that the federal government doesn't trample on our rights as states," Sorrell said. "But there are going to be real challenges when you've got, you know, Republicans controlling the House and the Senate, and this wild card president-elect. "
One area of policy that Sorrell says he thinks may be challenging for Vermont going forward has to do with bias-free policing.
"If the federal government turns around and really ups the ante on requiring state and local officials to make these inquiries [into an individual's immigration status], to actually challenge this sanctuary city or sanctuary state policies, there could be significant litigation going forward with states against states, and obviously the U.S. Department of Justice espousing a position that's consistent with that of the majority of the Congress and the then president. "
What lies ahead for him
Sorrell's next role will be as a visiting scholar with the U.S.-Asia Partnerships for Environmental Law at Vermont Law School.
"In mid-to-late February I'll be heading to China and spending six weeks or so there and I'll be lecturing at a number of law schools and giving some other lectures in five different cities around the country," Sorrell said.
"A little intimidating to me, I have to say. But I got advice from some former AGs about 'don't make long-term decisions about what you're going to do after you cycle out as AG, do something different for three or four months. And here I am off to China, and I think it's going to be a great adventure. And I'm so looking forward to it."
Listen to the full interview with Sorrell above.
Editor's Note: In discussing "pay to play" questions, Sorrell discussed his opinion and reaction to Brady Toensing, vice chair of the Vermont Republican Party, who leveled the allegations. VPR contacted Toensing for comment and he provided the following written statement:
"My request for the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Attorney General Sorrell was based in large part on the reporting of the New York Times and SevenDays reporter Paul Heintz, for which the New York Times won a Pulitzer. This reporting revealed that Attorney General Sorrell accepted an envelope filled with $10,000 in campaign contributions at the start of a meeting where the donors asked for, and eventually won, a state contract worth potentially millions. The evidence presented in those stories and gathered from my requests for public records resulted in the first-ever appointment of an Independent Counsel to investigate a state-wide office holder in Vermont. In the end, the Independent Counsel and a bipartisan group of eight state’s attorneys thought enough of this evidence to make a criminal referral to the Vermont State Police who then referred the matter over to the federal authorities for investigation."