In Raising Money From Legal Adversaries, Attorney General Candidates Write Their Own Rules
Should the Democratic candidates for attorney general raise campaign money from lawyers and corporations they battle in court? Or does it constitute a conflict of interest?
Attorney General Bill Sorrell recently grabbed headlines for raising money from companies he investigated — entities that wound up writing the state six-figure checks for defrauding Vermont consumers. As reported by VTDigger, Sorrell raised $2000 from Colorado-based Dish Network — which paid $250,000 to Vermont to settle two separate consumer-fraud cases brought by Sorrell’s office.
The seven-term attorney general also accepted a $250 check from LifeLock, an Arizona-based company that paid Vermont $15,000 for deceptive advertising.
Likewise, Sorrell’s primary opponent, Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, has raised thousands of dollars from defense attorneys with active cases in his courtrooms — and thousands more from lawyers whose clients have landed on Donovan’s docket in the past. The state’s attorney is even handling some of these cases personally.
A review of campaign filings and a computer search of public records at the Chittenden County courthouse in Burlington shows that 14 lawyers who donated to Donovan have active cases on his criminal docket. Together, these defense attorneys have contributed $4100 to Donovan’s bid to unseat Sorrell.
Some donating lawyers, such as Lisa Shelkrot of Langrock Sperry & Wool and Robert Sussman of Blodgett, Watts, Volk & Sussman, have only a client or two facing charges in Donovan’s court. Others, such as Mark and Robert Kaplan, whose Burlington firm donated $500 to Donovan’s campaign, have half a dozen or more pending cases. The charges against their clients range from drunk driving and cocaine possession to domestic and sexual assault.
Is it appropriate for candidates to be taking money from present — and potentially future — adversaries?
“What you’re raising is a really important ethical question for which I don’t think Vermont has provided any direct guidance,” says Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna, who has moderated two debates between the primary opponents.
Guidance would most likely come from the Vermont Bar Association, which has issued hundreds of advisory ethics opinions pertaining to attorney conduct, including 264 alone on conflicts of interest. Those case-by-case opinions cover everything from whether a law firm may hire an associate who previously represented a party the law firm is currently suing (it may), to whether it is improper for a lawyer to work as a part-time prosecutor in one county while he or his partners practice criminal defense work in another (it is).
But the Vermont Bar Association has been silent on whether it’s ethical for candidates running for attorney general — or state’s attorney, for that matter — to accept donations from legal adversaries. The issue has never come up.
“I’ve never, in my time in this office, been asked that question,” says VBA executive director Robert Paolini, who’s held the job for 16 years. “The question has come up in states that elect judges. Those states have faced this issue in terms of judicial ethics. But no question has ever been raised here about state’s attorneys [or attorneys general] to my knowledge.”
Both candidates defend their contributions as appropriate. Donovan says he handles only “a handful” of cases personally; deputies who are empowered to cut deals without his OK prosecute most of them. Dovovan calls the lawyers in question “my colleagues, my friends,” and says he’s taken “great strides” not to personally handle cases involving donors during the campaign.
“If there’s a question that arises on a case now or in the future,” Donovan says, “I’ll recuse myself.”
Donovan says he recently did just that with a defendant represented by William Norful, a Winooski attorney who donated $500, reassigning the case to one of his deputies. He did the same thing before he was a candidate for attorney general, removing himself from the criminal investigation into Burlington Telecom because his uncle, John Leddy, works for the law firm representing the city of Burlington.
But on other criminal cases, Donovan has remained involved. The state’s attorney supplied a list of cases he is handling personally, which shows that two defense attorneys who are donors — Jason Sawyer and John B. St. Francis, both of Burlington — represent clients Donovan is prosecuting. Charges against those four defendants include disorderly conduct, aggravated assault, drunk driving and forgery.
One of Donovan’s donors, Burlington defense attorney James Murdoch, is representing Jim Deeghan, the state police sergeant charged with felony timecard fraud. Though not the assigned prosecutor on the case, Donovan has been out front on the high-profile prosecution — heading a press conference that landed him on the front page of the Burlington Free Press on July 14 — and acknowledges he will continue to have a hand in Deeghan’s prosecution. Murdoch donated $250.
“Look, that $250 political contribution is not going to influence me one way or another on a case of that magnitude,” says Donovan, adding that he’s developed a reputation as being “fair and consistent with everybody” over five and a half years as state’s attorney. “I will not be the only prosecutor assigned to that case. There will be other people looking at this. But certainly if appearance becomes an issue, we’ll address it in the appropriate way.”
Donovan stresses that the Deeghan case landed on his desk months after he received Murdoch’s donation. “It’d be a different story if there was a high-profile case, charges were brought and then contributions came,” Donovan adds. “And that’s not the case here.”
But in another case, that is precisely the situation. The court-appointed defense lawyer for accused killer Jose Pazos, David Sleigh of St. Johnsbury, sent Donovan’s campaign a $500 check. Donovan explains that one of his deputies, prosecutor Mary Morrissey, is taking the lead in that trial.
But “I’m going to be involved in that case no matter what,” Donovan says. “I can tell you, whether it’s a penny, whether it’s $100, whether it’s $500, it’s not going to influence in any way how we handle that case. I don’t care what anybody’s done for me, there will be no favors given to anybody who murders anybody in this state. Period.”
Sleigh, one of Vermont’s best-known criminal defense lawyers, says he rarely gets involved in political races because “I don’t want to look like I’m paying a potential adversary.” But he says he was inspired to donate to Donovan’s campaign because “the AG’s office has sort of stagnated,” and he believes Donovan would make it more vibrant.
“I don’t correspond or communicate with him in the course of litigation,” Sleigh says of the state’s attorney, adding that the money in question is “pretty insignificant.”
For his part, Sorrell says he’s been tough on the corporations donating to his campaign when they’ve run afoul of the law — and insists he would be again if called upon. He maintains that accepting money from Dish Network was not unethical, because the company is no longer under investigation.
Sorrell says he has “a history of being tough” on the company, having fought its proposed merger with DirecTV and subsequently pursuing consumer-fraud charges against Dish for “unfair and deceptive” sales practices. Dish mailed hundreds of fraudulent letters to Vermont consumers.
Sorrell says he doesn’t recall the LifeLock case, but a press release from his office in 2010 says the company paid $15,000 to settle a charge that it engaged in deceptive advertising.
“The fact that they ran afoul of our consumer-protection laws doesn’t mean that they’re permanently scarred,” says Sorrell, who is running on his record as a defender of consumer rights. “That’s not the nature of our system.”
Sorrell says he suspects the companies donated to him because they’re both dues-paying members of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, a national political organization formed to elect Democrats to state attorney general offices and funded, in part, by corporations.
Asked how he would handle future law-breaking by Dish Network or another company that donated to his campaign, Sorrell responds, “I can guarantee you that if there were a problem in the future, and Dish said, ‘Geez, we contributed to your campaign,’ that would be the end of the conversation.”
Sorrell says he has voluntarily returned $2500 in donations over potential conflicts of interest — specifically, individuals or firms with state contracts that Sorrell’s office “reviewed.” The AG says he sent back checks totaling $2000 to the Pennsylvania law firm of Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check because his office approved the firm to handle certain legal work related to state retirement funds. The other returned check was a $500 donation from former assistant attorney general Barney Brannen, who left public service and now is contracted by the state as co-counsel in a civil lawsuit that Sorrell’s office has against R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.
Nothing in the law prevents Sorrell from taking those funds, but the candidate says he has a self-imposed ban on accepting money from companies or individuals in active litigation against his office, or whose state contracts his office was involved in approving.
“Someone could question whether I was showing some favoritism to a donor,” Sorrell reasons, “and I would want to avoid that.”