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Sorrell’s VY vendetta comes at a cost

‘None of this innocent-until-proven guilty stuff’

Meredith Angwin writes the Yes, Vermont Yankee blog and is a familiar voice in support of the nuclear power plant in Vernon.


Last week, Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell announced that he was not filing criminal charges against Entergy. He announced this decision with as much anti-Entergy innuendo as he could manage.

While newspapers describe a person caught red-handed as an “alleged” murderer, Sorrell speaks as if he is sure that Entergy is guilty of a crime, but he just couldn’t find the evidence.

None of this innocent-until-proven-guilty stuff for Sorrell. He explains that perjury is so hard to prove, he lacks “the smoking gun evidence [...] to prove that this untrustworthy behavior was criminal,” and so forth.

He goes on to say that although the “active phase of the investigation” is over, “more evidence” may come to light in the future, allowing him to file criminal charges against Entergy.

Sorrell’s short report is also available. There’s no new information in the report, as far as I can tell. If you want, you can compare it against the other three reports exonerating Entergy.

Frankly, why bother? I have better things to do with my time than check whether, in 17 months of investigations, Sorrell found an e-mail that I had not seen before.

Also, whatever e-mails Sorrell includes, he concludes that he does not have evidence to file criminal charges.

* * *

According to the Associated Press, Governor Peter Shumlin “respected Sorrell’s conclusions.” Then Shumlin took his usual cracks at “Entergy Louisiana” whose “pattern of misinformation” is “not how we expect businesses to act here in Vermont.”

Speaking of misinformation, how is a Vermont Attorney General supposed to act?

Sorrell wants to convince us of two things, which are basically contradictory. He wants the people of Vermont to believe:

• He did a thorough, lengthy investigation (17 months, 2 million pages of documents, interviews, and so on).

• His investigation cost the taxpayers very little money.

In his press conference, Sorrell declared that both these things are true, despite the obvious contradictions. He described a year and half of legal investigations of a major company, in a complicated situation, but the whole thing cost — wait for it — $100,000.

That’s right. As far as I can tell, $100,000 per year is around what a full-time state’s attorney would receive. (I moused around the Vermont state job board to determine that such is the case.)

How did Sorrell do such a lengthy investigation and spend so little money? Did he charge back the investigation to Entergy somehow? I don’t think governments can charge people or companies for investigating them. Governments can certainly charge fines, but that implies a trial and conviction.

There’s a smoking gun here. Sorrell isn’t saying everything about his investigation. In my opinion, this $100,000 number is part of Sorrell’s pattern of misleading the people of Vermont.

* * *

Sorrell has a habit of spending taxpayer money, but not winning cases. In mid-June, Vermont lost a major lawsuit about physician confidentiality, which Sorrell argued all the way to the Supreme Court. This was a multi-year, expensive lawsuit. In June, the Supreme Court ruled against Vermont 6-3.

Here’s Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna on the ruling:

“What the [Vermont] law did, the Court said, was suppress speech that was ’too persuasive’ and contrary to the state’s own policy goals of promoting generic drug use. In essence, the Court said Vermont had engaged in censorship for political reasons. The state may not like pharmaceutical companies, but it doesn’t have the right to keep them quiet.”

Hanna said that the consequence, the court held, “is to withhold otherwise true and accurate information from consumers. If a state tries to do so, it must have, in plain English, a really, really good reason. But Vermont couldn’t come up with a really, really good reason. The law didn’t protect physician privacy, it didn’t lower the cost of medical services, and it didn’t promote public health[....]

“In both the 2006 Randall campaign finance case and this decision, Vermont compromised constitutional precision in favor of political popularity, positioning the state as David and financially powerful voices as Goliath. In both cases, the Court saw it the other way around.”

In June, the Supreme Court decided the pharmaceutical case on the basis of freedom of speech. Sorrell was unsuccessful in trying to show that the Vermont law protected somebody and didn’t violate free speech. Since many Supreme Court decisions nowadays are 5-4, losing 6-3 is losing big.

* * *

Perhaps some group should investigate why Sorrell wastes Vermont’s money this way. (Hopefully, they will announce the results of their investigation while a judge is deliberating on one of Sorrell’s cases.)

If someone were to gather 2 million pages of documents about the attorney general’s office, we might get answers to questions such as how much money Sorrell is spending, and whether he considers the Constitution before he brings his cases.

I’m a taxpayer, and I think that such an investigation could save Vermont a great deal of money.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #109 (Wednesday, July 13, 2011).

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