Sounds of Silence: Fmr. Vermont AG Refuses to Answer Questions at #ExxonKnew Deposition

Former Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell was formally deposed on Monday at the request of the Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E&E Legal). The deposition was conducted to help determine whether Sorrell’s office conspired with other attorneys general before deciding to launch a political investigation into ExxonMobil’s climate research.

Vermont judge Mary Miles Teachout had previously ordered the release of correspondence between the attorneys general of New York and Vermont regarding a potential multi-state suit against ExxonMobil, a phenomenon that has been widely discussed in public for decades.

Judge Teachout also granted E&E Legal’s motion to include Sorrell in a personal capacity to make his private emails subject to the open records requests. E&E Legal has previously shown that Sorrell used his private Gmail account for work-related correspondence, and therefore asked that it also be searched for documents responsive to their request. As Judge Teachout put it:

“Before electronic correspondence and documents,” she wrote, “if a public official kept paper work correspondence and documents in a desk drawer at home … the fact that he or she did that would not result in such documents being exempt from public access … The fact that the format of documents is now electronic should not change public access to government documents.”

The deposition was part of E&E Legal’s discovery process to unearth official email correspondence that was sent or received by Sorrell’s personal Gmail account. E&E and others are concerned Sorrell used his private email account to conspire with anti-fossil fuel activists and attorneys general in an attempt to hide the correspondence from the public.

Earlier this month, Sorrell avoided questions when he failed to show for the scheduled deposition in a Burlington courthouse—but judging by his performance on Monday, he might as well have skipped this one too.

According to E&E Legal, Sorrell refused to answer 95 percent of all questions posed to him. Sorrell’s attorney, an assistant attorney general to the current Vermont AG, objected to answering the simplest of questions, including one asking if he had read the Vermont Public Records Act.

E&E Legal: Have you read the Vermont Public Records Act?

Asst. AG: Objection.

E&E Legal: Is that one you’re going to instruct him not to answer?

Asst. AG: Yup.

Sorrell would only admit that he “provided e-mails to my attorneys,” but questions related to when he conducted a search of his account and whether any responsive documents may have been automatically deleted were met with objections from his legal representation.

Even when Sorrell was responsive, his attorney would not permit him to answer the relevant follow-up questions. In one exchange, Sorrell admitted to using a search term but did not answer whether or not that search term turned over any results:

E&E: So you searched for the word Pawa?

Sorrell: Yes.

E&E: Did the word Pawa appear in your search results?

Asst. AG: Objection.

E&E: So I just want to clarify the objection for the record. So Pawa was a search term; he said he searched for the word Pawa, and you’re instructing him not to answer whether he found anything under the word Pawa?

Asst. AG: Correct.

Pawa is a reference to Matt Pawa, a lawyer who was present at the infamous La Jolla meeting in 2012, where activists strategized how to convince state attorneys general to sue energy companies over climate change. Two cities in California recently hired Pawa to bring a lawsuit against oil and natural gas companies for allegedly causing sea levels to rise.

After 46 minutes of deposition questioning and 51 objections by Sorrell’s attorney, we are no closer to understanding the results of Sorrell’s search or whether any responsive documents were automatically deleted and therefore unrecoverable. Of course, none of this would have been necessary had Sorrell followed his office’s policy and conducted the government’s business using his government email account.

Needless to say, questions about what Sorrell may be trying to hide will now only continue to grow.

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