Plausible deniability and the $10,000 envelope

Kudos to Seven Days’ Paul Heintz for a good old-fashioned piece of outrage journalism, a nearly lost art in these days of objectivity fetishism. The object of his scorn: the woefully incomplete “investigation” of Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s demostrably squicky campaign finance shenanigans. (In the interest of self-promotion, here’s a link to my take on the story.)

The whole column is strongly recommended, but I want to highlight one passage — and then It’s Story Time, Kids!

To set this up: In December 2013, Sorrell had dinner with a couple of high-powered lawyers, Mike Messina and Patricia Madrid, who had previously donated to his campaign fund. Take it away, Paul:

“Just before sitting down to dinner, Mike gave me an envelope saying that he and the attorneys from the Texas firm [Baron & Budd] wished to contribute to my campaign for reelection,” Sorrell wrote in the affidavit, which has not been previously disclosed. “I thanked them and accepted the envelope.”

Tucked inside were five checks totaling $10,000 for Sorrell’s reelection campaign.

During the dinner, Sorrell wrote, Messina and his friends “suggested they would come to Vermont at a future date to discuss the possibility of Vermont suing the oil and gas industry, if I was interested.” Baron & Budd has made millions for itself — and the states and municipalities it has represented — by suing the industry over its use of the gasoline additive MTBE.

After Messina handed Sorrell the checks, his clients handed the AG “a folder or manila envelope” containing information about Baron & Budd and a memo touching on “the specifics of relevant Vermont law.” Sorrell trucked it back to his office, gave it to an assistant attorney general and asked him to check with the Agency of Natural Resources to “discuss the possibility” of suing.

Within months, Sorrell’s office had filed suit and hired four firms — including Baron & Budd and Messina — to serve as outside counsel, guaranteeing them a percentage of any money recouped.

The “affidavit” referenced above is a sworn statement provided by Sorrell to independent investigator Tom Little.

Sorrell’s attorney argues that this does “not equate to a quid pro quo arrangement.” Which is downright laughable. But as Heintz notes, Sorrell “practically admitted to the crime” of trading state contracts for political donations.

And now, It’s Story Time.

I recently spent a couple of days in Philadelphia. Loyal Spouse had a speaking engagement, and we booked a room at a nearby motel (part of a major national chain, and no, Mr. Bodett, it did not have the number “6” in its name) on Roosevelt Avenue in North Philly. Those familiar with the city may be nodding knowingly; that’s not, shall we say, the best part of town. Not the worst, either, but definitely on the sketchy side.

The motel’s lobby featured bulletproof glass around the reception desk and a burly security guard conspicuously hanging around. There were stains on the hallway carpets. The night was uneventful, but there was a faint yet definite “drugs and hookers” vibe.

Next morning, we did some errands before the midday speech. One took us to a nearby shopping plana with the usual suspects: big supermarket, Home Depot, Staples, etc. Spouse went inside, I stayed in the car and listened to Stephanie Miller on satellite radio.

A few minutes later, a big-ass Nissan SUV pulled into the space directly in front of me. A slightly scruffy young man got out and went into Staples.

A few minutes after that, another scruffy young man came sauntering through the parking lot. He paused for a fraction of a second at the Nissan’s driver-side door and sauntered on. He did the same thing at a couple of cars in the next row, and then sauntered into Staples.

Spouse returned to car, we pulled out, and I noticed, on the ledge of the Nissan’s driver-side door, a small packet, about the size of a teabag.

Yes, my children, I had just witnessed a drug drop.

It’s a brilliant technique. Park the car in a big public lot, go inside a big box store, wait for the delivery guy to saunter into the store and give you the high sign, and go back to your car. “Oho, what’s this?” you say, “a teabag?” And you drive off. The money had presumably changed hands earlier in another location.

If the cops come by while you’re in the store, you deny any knowledge of said teabag. You have that most precious of legal commodities, plausible deniability. The delivery guy assumes a small risk, but he’s on the move and shows no sign of any overt drug activity.

I don’t know why this story came to mind when reading Heintz’ account of the Sorrell cash drop. You can draw your own conclusions.

4 thoughts on “Plausible deniability and the $10,000 envelope

  1. walter moses

    Nice piece of business for Sorrell. I wonder:

    Industrial wind megamogol $$$$ ——to——Sorrell——to—-Annette Smith?

    What do you think?

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Not sure I follow. You mean Sorrell’s probe into Smith is motivated by money? Possibly. But Smith has been a loose cannon for a long time, and it wouldn’t surprise me if she stepped over the line into practicing law without a license. Which is something that lawyers tend to care about.

  2. Shawn

    This from the Vermont State Police “Mediastatewide” press release…

    Department of Public Safety


    Press Release

    January 27, 2016 – After a civil review of campaign finance activities by Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell, the Vermont State Police received a complaint of alleged criminal misconduct from the state’s attorneys conducting the review. The Vermont State Police has scheduled a meeting this Friday with federal authorities, to determine if an investigation is warranted, and who has jurisdiction to perform the investigation if one occurs. At this time, there is no active investigation into this allegation being conducted by the Vermont State Police.

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      We shall see. I have a feeling this will fall between the cracks; the VSP is trying to fob it off on the feds, and I’ll bet the feds will either see it as a state matter or as too small to waste their time with. But hope springs eternal.


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