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Court Finds Violations Of Vermont's Campaign Finance Law

CONTACT: William H. Sorrell, Attorney General, (802) 828-3173

October 6, 2011

The Vermont Superior Court, Washington Unit, issued a decision on Tuesday in favor of the State in its campaign finance law enforcement action brought against the Republican Governors Association (“RGA”). The Court found that the RGA ran two political advertisements from August to October 2010, one promoting candidate Brian Dubie and the other attacking candidate Peter Shumlin, but did not register with the Secretary of State’s Office or file required disclosure reports. The Court also found that the RGA accepted contributions in excess of $2,000, in violation of Vermont’s limit on contributions to political committees. The RGA advertisements were in addition to others that it broadcast in the name of its Vermont PAC, Green Mountain Prosperity PAC (“GMP”). The RGA’s total spending on the Vermont gubernatorial race in 2010, both directly and through GMP, was over $900,000.

The Court rejected the RGA’s argument that national organizations such as itself cannot be regulated under Vermont’s campaign finance law. It ruled that if a PAC raises and spends more than $500 to support or oppose a candidate for Vermont office, it must follow Vermont law, regardless of whether it is also involved in political work in other states.

In addition, just as it did in the State’s other enforcement action against a PAC run by the Democratic Governors Association (“DGA”), the Court ruled that the RGA’s advertisements were clearly intended to advocate for or against a candidate. Dismissing the idea that these were issue ads, the Court said that the ads “can be understood only as a call to vote for one man and to vote against the other.” The Court found that it was “obviously Senator Shumlin’s role as a candidate for statewide office which explains the decision of a national political organization to buy airtime in Vermont in order to criticize his record on the local property tax.” Further, “no other communication except a campaign ad or a stump speech is likely to describe Lt. Governor Dubie with such focused warmth and approval” as the RGA’s “Vision for Vermont” advertisement. The Court observed that “it takes no sophistication to understand these messages.”

Ruling that the reporting requirement and the limit on contributions to PACs are constitutional, the Court held that the “RGA’s perceived problem” of compliance was “one of its own creation.” It explained that the RGA had set up a Vermont PAC which appeared to accept only contributions under $2,000, but “nevertheless chose not to use it for these advertisements.” Rather, the Court noted, the RGA “attempted to skirt state regulation” and ended up violating Vermont law.

The court has yet to impose penalties in either the DGA or RGA cases.

“We are pleased with Judge Crawford’s decisions,” Attorney General William Sorrell said. “This Office will continue to evenhandedly enforce Vermont’s campaign finance laws.”

  Website consulting provided by The National Association of Attorneys General.