TUNBRIDGE — After a heated Democratic primary that hinged more on leadership style than ideological substance, the race for attorney general has pivoted to a general election that features stark policy contrasts between the Democratic and Republican candidates.
The differences between seven-term incumbent William Sorrell and Republican challenger Jack McMullen were on display Friday morning as the two men offered differing views on issues such as Vermont Yankee, the criminal investigation into Burlington Telecom and the relocation of certain inmates to jails outside Vermont.
In an open-air debate at the Tunbridge World’s Fair, Sorrell continued to project confidence in his ability to successfully appeal a federal ruling the struck down Vermont’s ability to shutter a 40-year-old nuclear power plant in Vernon.
“For us it was really a no-brainer to appeal,” Sorrell said during a debate broadcast live on WDEV.
McMullen, interrupted by the occasional rooster’s crow, said Sorrell’s optimism is misplaced.
“The question is not whether I would favor keeping the plant open or shutting it down — that’s a policy matter for elected officials in the Legislature and administration,” McMullen said.
“But the job of the attorney general in my view should be to assess what the legal prospects are on appeal,” he said. “And my assessment ... is there is a very low probability of winning that appeal, but it would be very costly to pursue.”
McMullen said he thinks Vermont will have to spend $4 million to $8 million on expert counsel to litigate the case, money he said is better invested on Irene recovery efforts.
While he said he’s sympathetic to the Shumlin administration’s end game with Yankee, McMullen said he would adopt a more pragmatic means of achieving it.
“I’d go to the administration and say, ‘Why don’t you tell me what wish list is — whatever you’d like to see Entergy doing … as it continues to operate, which it will, and let me go try to negotiate the best deal we can and then withdraw that appeal,’” McMullen said.
Sorrell said too much is at stake for Vermont, and the rest of the country for that matter, to allow the federal ruling to stand unchallenged. The decision by U.S. District Court judge J. Garvan Murtha, Sorrell said, included prohibitions on Vermont’s ability to deny operating licenses to power plants based on cost at which that electricity will ultimately be sold to ratepayers.
“If we hadn’t appealed and just left the decision standing on that … it would be terrible precedent for all kinds of power projects going forward, not only in Vermont but all over the country,” Sorrell said.
He said Murtha’s decision, which places great weight on specific safety-related passages transcribed from discussion in Statehouse committee rooms, could also have a “chilling” effect on legislative debates in the future.
The National Council of State Legislatures and the New York Attorney General have both filed briefs in the appeal, which Sorrell cited as evidence of the merits Vermont brings to the case.
On the issue of Burlington Telecom, McMullen said Sorrell’s failure to bring charges in the misuse of public funds there constituted prosecutorial malpractice. By using $17 million in taxpayer money to prop up the venture, McMullen said, city officials clearly violated statutes designed to prohibit them from doing so.
“This is one of most egregious breaches of public trust and fiduciary responsibility yet experienced in Vermont,” McMullen said. “Elected officials at the state level and (local level) took a pass on it. I find it inexplicable and would like to re-examine it if elected.”
Because both he and his deputy once worked for a law firm at the center of the Burlington Telecom controversy, and retained close ties to partners there now, Sorrell said he couldn’t in good conscience investigate the matter himself.
He said he delegated the investigation to two county prosecutors, both of whom found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
“As chief law-enforcement officer of this state, I am expected to obey Vermont’s laws, but also the ethical laws that govern attorneys and prosecutors, and to avoid conflicts of interest and (perceived) conflicts of interest,” Sorrell said.
Sorrell criticized one of McMullen’s most attention-grabbing policy initiatives: to require out-of-state criminals convicted in Vermont to serve out their sentences in their home state’s jails.
McMullen said the proposal would not only reduce corrections costs, but prevent criminal elements from reestablishing ties in Vermont towns once they’re released from prisons here.
Sorrell said of course it’s a great idea in concept, but that it betrays McMullen’s lack of understanding of the criminal justice system.
“With 19 million people in New York and 600,000 in Vermont, that’s a great deal for us,” Sorrell said. “The New York attorney general is not going to reach that agreement.”
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