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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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