Category Archives: Bill Sorrell

Inartful dodges and implausible denials

Must be a new experience for Bill Stenger, having a hard time getting his calls returned. After all, he’s been a major player at the intersection of Vermont business and politics for a long time now, benefiting from sweetheart deals and inadequate oversight (see Postscript below) courtesy of at least two successive administrations.

After years of holding together his massive EB-5 project with chicken wire and spit, Stenger is now embroiled in the sales pitch of a lifetime: portraying himself as innocent in the face of federal and state investigations and an increasingly ugly paper trail.

From VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld, we learn that federal officials “had strong forensic evidence of a massive fraud” at least two years ago, and that Stenger was subjected to an intensive interview by SEC investigators in May 2014.

And from the Burlington Free Press’ Jess Aloe, we learn that Stenger’s top financial executive resigned in 2011 “after [Stenger] failed to address concerns about the use of money from foreign investors.”

It is literally impossible to believe that an experienced entrepreneur like Stenger could somehow remain clueless in the face of all that. But there he was, telling the Free Press last Monday (two days before the SEC raided his offices, seized his papers, and changed the locks) that nothing was wrong. And on Friday, two days after the raid, he doubled down.

“There was a lot of stuff in the presentation that I got on Wednesday that I was not aware of,” Stenger said. “I can’t go any further than that. I’ve got to let it go at that. I’m trying to figure this out as well. I just need to deal with it.”

Okay, I see what we’re doing here: blaming the dark-skinned flatlander.

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Let the rewriting of history commence

Slightly off topic: Good thing the Burlington Free Press published its advertorial piece about Q Burke (written by a Q Burke PR person) before the shit hit the fan at Stengerville. I hope the Freeploid got paid in advance, because Stenger’s not cutting any checks anytime soon. The article, identified as “NEWS,” can still be viewed on the Freeper’s website. At least for now. I’m surprised they haven’t consigned it to the dark web already.

Anyway, on with the shitshow. Unsurprisingly, Governor Shumlin has launched full-steam-ahead into a thorough rewrite of history. He’s claiming that he saw the Stenger/Quiros scandal coming before everyone else, and his administration took proactive steps to uncover the scandal and limit the damage.

Bwahahahahahahahahahaha.

If true, his response to the scandal was astoundingly muted. It looks as though he began slowly edging away from his previous boosterism for the project, which included many an international junket which saw him doing his level best to steer investors into the Stenger/Quiros web of fraud and deceit. Slowly edging away, but otherwise holding his tongue. How unlike a watchdog.

I wonder what he’d say to all those investors if he was somehow confronted by them all. Do I hear a “nothingburger”?

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh on the Guv, since he didn’t have direct oversight on EB-5 projects, he inherited the oversight process from the administratively flawless Douglas administration, and the Stenger/Quiros plan seemed like such a boon for a long-depressed part of the state. But his words today just made my blood boil.

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Paul Heintz turns over a rock

For almost a year now, Seven Days’ political editor and columnist has been carrying the ball on Eternal General Bill Sorrell’s squicky-if-not-illegal campaign and fundraising activities, while the rest of Vermont media has been slow-playing the whole thing — either ignoring the story, or helping Sorrell paint it as a partisan witch-hunt. (Their reporting emphasizes VTGOP Vice Chair Brady Toensing’s role, while downplaying or omitting Heintz’ journalism, which provided the substance of Toensing’s complaint.)

And yesterday, Heintz dropped another toothsome tidbit — catching Sorrell’s duplicity regarding a 2014 campaign event that featured Sorrell and then-Lite Gov candidate Dean Corren.

I’m not going chapter-and-verse on that. You should read Heintz’ post for yourself. But I am going to highlight a tangential sidelight in the piece that exposes the seedy underbelly of Vermont politics. Or at least one crucial aspect, regarding the most quietly powerful man in Vermont politics, Dick Mazza.

He is not the most powerful, mind you. But he enjoys by far the highest ratio between official position (just another Senator, cough) and his actual influence.

Among a trove of Sorrell emails obtained by Seven Days was a juicy little number from Tom Torti, the well-connected president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, warning Sorrell that there might be consequences to his appearance with Corren.

“I’m sure you have heard about the level of displeasure Mazza feels about you standing with Corren,” Torti wrote, referring to Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle). “Just wanted to pass on what was mentioned to me.”

Before you chew and swallow, let that roll around on your tongue for a moment. Savor the essence: that Bill Sorrell, the politically untouchable Attorney General, should have reason to fear the wrath of a single State Senator.

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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.

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Sorrell gets the wet noodle

Scoop of the week award goes to Neal Goswami of the Vermont Press Bureau, for snagging himself an advance copy of the independent investigator’s report on Attorney General Bill Sorrell.

The topline is that Sorrell was exonerated.

The reality is not nearly so simple.

There were six accusations against Sorrell. On two of them, investigator Tom Little found no evidence of wrongdoing. On two others, Little admonished Sorrell for coming uncomfortably close to “crossing the line.”

As for the final two, Little concluded that they were outside the scope of his investigation.

Whaaaaaaaat?

Tom Little was appointed on May 7, 2015. Today is January 22, 2016.

Eight and a half months.

Couldn’t he have told us a bit sooner that he wouldn’t be investigating two of the six counts?   When exactly did he reach that conclusion?

Also, who outlined the scope of Little’s investigation? Well, we know the answer to that: he was appointed by Governor Shumlin. But was it written in a way that excluded certain areas of inquiry?

We were promised a complete investigation of Bill Sorrell’s activities — and that’s not what we got. 

And I think Tom Little, whose investigation was taxpayer-funded, owes us an explanation.

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Bill Sorrell gets religion

There was some welcome news from Vermont’s Eternal General about a month back. Bill Sorrell had begun a series of public hearings on the subject of incarceration — specifically, whether Vermont is putting too many people behind bars. Sorrell and others are gauging public sentiment on the question, and considering whether the Legislature should “adopt a resolution to steer Vermont’s criminal justice system away from incarceration,” according to VTDigger’s account.

Sorrell being Sorrell, he cautioned that nothing much would happen anytime soon.

“It would be like moving a battleship through thousands of individual decisions by prosecutors and judges, and in no small part on the decisions by corrections personnel on when the individual is released,” Sorrell told VTDigger.

Still, if this is how Sorrell plans to spend a chunk of his final year in office, then bully for him. We’ve been imprisoning more and more people for the past three decades, with no appreciable effect on public safety. Our prison population is aging and getting more expensive. It also features an appalling over-representation of Vermont’s teeny-tiny black population.

African-Americans make up just 1 percent of the population of a state that is 95.3 percent white, yet they make up 10.3 percent of Vermont inmates. Put another way, a Vermont inmate is more than 10 times as likely as a resident at large to be African-American.

So if Vermont’s top law enforcement official is on board with reducing incarceration rates, that’s a really great thing. More power to him.

One question, though.

Where the hell was Bill Sorrell all this time?

ICYMI, for the past two decades of our mass incarceration binge, he’s been Vermont’s top law enforcement official. So, welcome to the party, Bill. Sorry it took you so long to get here.

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The increasingly random race for lieutenant governor

It gives me a tingle to see that the Democrats now have three declared candidates for lieutenant governor, and their ages add up to less than 100 (34 + 29 + 28 = 93). Maybe this puts the last nail in the coffin of Sen. Dustin Degree’s claim that the VTGOP is the party of youth. (Heck, if you add any two of the Dems together, they’re younger than the lone Republican candidate, 72-year-old Randy Brock.)

Otherwise, though, the latest entry into the field leaves me wondering: Who asked for this?

Garrett Graff is an accomplished young man. I look forward to hearing what he has to offer, and God knows he’s got plenty of time to reveal it. But look: he hasn’t lived in Vermont since he graduated from high school in 1999. He’s been part of the D.C. media scene since 2004. He is only now relocating to Vermont, just in time to make noises about a candidacy.

Of the five declared candidates for Official Senate Gavel-Warmer, two are perfectly understandable: former State Senator and Auditor Randy Brock, and State Rep. Kesha Ram. After that, the field has an appearance of randomness.

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