MONTPELIER, Vt. — Retired Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said Wednesday he was ready to be deposed by lawyers seeking information about public business he might have conducted from his private email account in a case that could have broader public policy implications for former public officials.
Sorrell made the comments after Washington County Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout ruled Wednesday that keeping information on a private email account was akin to keeping work correspondence in a desk drawer at home. Teachout said Sorrell should answer questions in a legal deposition about what information is contained in his private email account.
“The question is are you going to be able to, without any evidence of any violation of the state records act, be able to require a former governor or mayor, or city councilor, legislator, attorney general, on and on, to appear before a deposition and to make available or turn over or allow access to private emails,” Sorrell said, noting that there was nothing to be found in his private email.
The underlying public records case brought by the Washington-based Energy and Environmental Legal Institute, which describes its mission as free-market environmentalism through strategic litigation, is seeking information about whether Sorrell and a number of other attorneys general were involved in a coordinated multistate investigation into ExxonMobil and climate change.
Sorrell said he believes in climate change, but he dismissed the group’s allegations.
“I think it’s important that he testify. It’s a documented part of the public record now that he used private email to conduct public business and all that we’ve ever sought is public records,” said institute attorney Matthew Hardin. “So we are looking for public records, we are not looking to invade anybody’s privacy as the attorney general’s office has said.”
The Vermont attorney general’s office said it planned to release a statement on Thursday.
In a related case, the Vermont Supreme Court is considering whether private email accounts of state employees should be shielded from public records laws.
In her ruling, Teachout said the scope of Sorrell’s deposition, now scheduled for Monday, would be limited to what documents in his private email account pertain to the public records case. The results of the deposition could then be used to address the broader legal issues in the case.
“The fact that the format of the documents is now electronic should not change public access to government documents,” Teachout’s ruling said.