Questioning the wisdom of Sorrell’s administration

by Jack McMullen

  • 3.3 million — The amount already paid out from the Vermont Treasury to winning litigants for legal fees on lawsuits brought by Attorney General William Sorrell to defend laws found unconstitutional — and widely believed to be unconstitutional before the suits were filed.
  • $11.8 million — The additional amount likely to be paid out to winning litigants to defend laws widely believed to be based on faulty, unconstitutional legal premises.
  • $4 to $8 million — An estimate (based on my firm’s extensive experience with substantial litigation of this type) of the further additional amount that Attorney General Sorrell is risking in his appeal of Judge Murtha’s well-reasoned decision in the Entergy matter.
  • Total exposure: $19.1 million to $23.1 million.

The papers and airwaves have been full of these observations in the past few weeks.

Bad as this record is, there is an even bigger problem with the attorney general’s administration of his office and its $8 million annual budget: Incorrect priorities and wrong choices of cases to litigate.

The attorney general is a separately elected officer under Vermont’s Constitution. He is therefore able to exercise judgment independent from that of the governor concerning the cases to pursue that will most benefit the state and its citizens.

Besides wasting time on the losing cases alluded to above (Vermont campaign finance law, data mining law, Entergy-Vermont Yankee matter and appeal), Mr. Sorrell has chosen to pursue cases like criminal prosecution of Donald Bevins of Twin City Roofing who failed to maintain workers’ compensation insurance during a period when two workers were seriously injured. Mr. Bevins is a private citizen who apparently did the wrong thing in tough economic times while nonetheless maintaining a small business that provided employment.

Why did Mr. Sorrell not negotiate with Mr. Bevins to settle this matter civilly with adequate restitution to the injured employees and an agreement to maintain insurance backed, perhaps, by a bond — instead of convicting him of a crime, jailing him while also barring him as a condition of probation from operating a home repair business?

Important as providing proper insurance protection for employees is, it pales in comparison with the egregious wrongdoing committed by public officials in the Burlington Telecom (BT) matter — something that despite mountains of evidence of improper activity Mr. Sorrell chose not to pursue.

Burlington Telecom was created with the promise that no taxpayer money would be used. A proviso aimed at that result was included in the Certificate of Public Good issued by the Public Service Board. It said that whatever BT borrowed from the city of Burlington had to be paid back in 60 days and that cash reserves and receivables had to be on hand to cover the amount borrowed. Many observers were wary of creating a city entity to compete with Adelphia (now Comcast).

The cable business is vigorously competitive unlike the monopoly electric distribution company, Burlington Electric, the other retail business the city operates.

Despite these ground rules, the city’s chief administrative officer, beginning in early 2007, siphoned $17 million of city funds to cover BT operating losses and hid that fact from the public through the March 2009 election. It only came to light when John Briggs of the Burlington Free Press started asking questions. Mayor Kiss and Mr. Leopold maintain they did nothing wrong even though the situation with Burlington Telecom has cost Burlington its coveted AAA bond rating, is a major issue in the 2012 mayoral race, and is the subject of an ongoing civil lawsuit.

Shouldn’t this squandering of tax revenues in violation of the BT charter have prompted action by the attorney general? Wouldn’t such action have been a far more justified application of the resources of his office than jailing a small businessman for failing to maintain insurance?

This is but one example of the lack of judgment or sense of proportion that calls into question the wisdom of Mr. Sorrell’s administration of his office.

Jack McMullen of Burlington was the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and now serves on the boards of GBIC and AIV and as chairman of the Ethan Allen Institute.