Attorneys on both sides of the Vermont Supreme Court public records case involving government officials’ use of personal email accounts discuss their views on June 7, 2017. APRIL MCCULLUM/FREE PRESS
Spectators filled the Vermont Supreme Court last month as the state Attorney General’s Office faced off against a familiar foe: Republican lawyer and avid public records wrangler Brady Toensing.
He wanted to see years’ worth of emails from former Democratic Attorney General Bill Sorrell and his staff, including any messages involving Sen. Bernie Sanders or Jane Sanders, the Sanders presidential campaign, the Sanders office, or a lengthy list of lobbyists.
Sorrell’s staff had declined to search his personal email account, citing privacy concerns. Toensing sued, with support from Vermont news media.
If the public records law does not touch personal accounts, Toensing argued with a flourish, “we should abandon any pretense of claiming to have an open government.”
Toensing, who is nationally known for demanding a federal investigation into Jane Sanders’ financial dealings as president of Burlington College, has become adept at using the law to stir up Vermont politics.
The Supreme Court challenge was the latest in a string of high-profile cases involving Toensing, from public records requests about Vermont Health Connect, to campaign finance complaints against the attorney general, to a recent case involving the display of a Hindu swastika by a Burlington High School student.
“These positions that he takes are partisan, and he pushes them in a partisan way,” said David Kirby, former U.S. Attorney for Vermont who represented Sorrell during an investigation prompted by Toensing’s claims. “He’s not looking for justice. He’s looking to hurt Democrats, political opponents.”
Republicans tend to view Toensing, who serves as vice-chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, as a sorely-needed advocate for transparency in a state government dominated by the left.
“I don’t see Brady as being the hyper-partisan guy that some would suggest,” said Randy Brock of Swanton, a former Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. Brock described his friend Toensing as a “good thinker.”
Toensing has been discussed as a candidate to become Vermont’s top federal prosecutor under President Donald Trump — the office Toensing asked to investigate Jane Sanders and Burlington College.
“If he was confirmed as U.S. attorney, we’d have to see,” Kirby said, “but I would have concerns about the partisan nature of his behavior in the past.”
Republican Gov. Phil Scott considered recommending Toensing for U.S. attorney, he said at a June news conference, but ultimately agreed with Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy to recommend Christina Nolan for the job.
The decision rests with the Trump administration. Bernie Sanders, who denies all allegations brought by Toensing, declined to comment when asked about the potential that Toensing could become U.S. attorney.
An education in Washington
Toensing, 49, lived as a child in Strafford, Fairlee, and Hanover, N.H., where he said his father still lives.
He attended Georgetown University as an undergraduate and law student and followed his mother, a former federal prosecutor and U.S. Department of Justice official, into a career in law.
Toensing worked as an aide for Sen. Warren Rudman, R-New Hampshire, and later joined his mother and stepfather, former U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova, when the couple formed a Republican-connected family law firm, diGenova & Toensing in Washington, D.C.
In 1998, Toensing heard that television talk show host Geraldo Rivera had offered $10,000 to anyone who could come up with a federal case similar to the perjury case against President Bill Clinton.
Toensing took the challenge: “On my lunch break, I went to the library and found one,” he said, a 1913 case involving a man in Texas who was prosecuted for perjury after lying about having sex.
Toensing appeared on Rivera’s show alongside his parents to claim the prize. He said in an interview that he donated the $10,000 to the Ronald McDonald House in Burlington. He moved to Charlotte about two years later.
“When I came back to Vermont from D.C., I looked at the political situation and the dominance of the Democratic Party and decided I wanted to help with a local election,” Toensing said. He arranged a coffee meeting with then-Republican candidate for governor, Jim Douglas, and joined his campaign, helping Douglas win the governor’s seat in 2002. Toensing also worked on Republican Brian Dubie’s campaigns for lieutenant governor and governor.
Toensing represented Dubie in 2012 when Attorney General Sorrell brought a campaign finance lawsuit, alleging that the Dubie campaign shared polling data with the Republican Governors Association. The campaign agreed to settle the case and paid a $20,000 penalty, while the RGA paid $30,000.
“I represented Brian Dubie in his case and saw how unreasonable the attorney general was, and how overzealous he was,” said Toensing, who is today part of a group convened by Attorney General T.J. Donovan to clarify Vermont’s campaign finance law.
“He’s an excellent attorney and highly effective,” said Joy Karnes Limoge, a real estate attorney who worked with Toensing to help the neighbor of Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin recover his property after a questionable deal with Shumlin in 2013. “I think he thoroughly reviews his cases and he moves forward very cautiously and with a lot of thought and preparation and background research.”
Two targets: Sorrell and Sanders
The Dubie case began a string of confrontations between Toensing and Sorrell, including most notably a set of bribery and campaign finance accusations in 2015 that prompted an independent state investigation.
The investigation cleared Sorrell of the campaign finance allegations but stopped short of making a determination on the most serious charge that Sorrell acted improperly by accepting campaign donations from a law firm seeking business with his office, then hiring the law firm.
“Who else was going to do it?” Toensing said. “Was a Democrat going to call attention to that? No, not likely.”
The Vermont State Police declined to investigate, leaving the matter for possible review at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
David Kirby, the former U.S. attorney who represented Sorrell through the misconduct allegations, said he was told by someone in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in August 2016 that the Sorrell file had been closed.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to provide any information on the matter, and Toensing said he was unaware of the case’s status.
“He’s brought a number of allegations and pressed them very hard against Bill Sorrell, and they all proved to be of no merit,” Kirby said. “A number of them were patently frivolous. Others were just meritless.”
Sorrell left office after 20 years and continues to resent Toensing.
“I’m not a masochistic person. It was not at all fun,” Sorrell said. “It’s easy for somebody to make a bunch of allegations, but at some point in time when this is done repeatedly and leads to nothing, people should start looking askance at what’s driving what Toensing’s all about.”
Sorrell said he wants to know who is funding Toensing’s work. Toensing juggles multiple roles — as a Republican Party official, a law firm partner, a private citizen and, in 2015-2016, a paid lobbyist for a firearms manufacturer Century International Arms and military contractor General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems.
Toensing’s work homed in on Sen. Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Toensing initially supported Marco Rubio in the Republican primary with a $2,700 campaign contribution in September 2015, according to federal records. He later became co-chairman, with Laura Benner, of the Trump campaign in Vermont.
Toensing began scrutinizing Sanders, whom he has called a “proselytizing socialist” and a hypocrite.
In January 2016, after gathering public records about Burlington College’s finances, Toensing sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Vermont and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation calling for an investigation into the 2011 loan that enabled Burlington College to purchase lakefront property from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Vermont.
Toensing suggested that Jane Sanders, who was then the college’s president, had committed bank fraud by misrepresenting donations on the loan application. He also suggested that Bernie Sanders had used his influence as a U.S. senator to secure the loan.
Bernie Sanders has been quick to dismiss the allegations of misconduct by pointing to Toensing, tying him to the Republican Party, and to President Trump, at every opportunity.
“Do you know where that allegation came from?” Sanders responded when he was asked during a recent MSNBC interview about the allegation that Sanders used his senatorial office to secure financing for Burlington College.
“That allegation came from the vice chairman of the Vermont Republican Party and Donald Trump’s Vermont campaign state director. That is an absolute lie.”
Toensing filed another complaint in August 2016 alleging that Sanders broke campaign finance laws by endorsing Vermont state senate candidate Christopher Pearson in a national fundraising email.
Sorrell, the attorney general, dismissed Toensing’s concerns because Sanders’ email stopped short of explicitly advocating for Pearson’s election.
Michael Briggs, a spokesman for Sanders, called the allegations “another in a string of wild and discredited political attacks by Brady Toensing.”
Toensing says the political nature of the claims should not be an excuse to set them aside.
“Answer the substance of it,” Toensing said.”My requests are always based on a factual predicate, a sufficient factual predicate.”
The Vermont Supreme Court is expected to decide any day whether Toensing’s search for emails on private accounts can move forward.
Contact April McCullum at 802-660-1863 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @April_McCullum.
Do you have a breaking news tip? Call us at 802-660-6500 or send us a post on Facebook or Twitter using #BFPTips.