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February 29, 2012

AG Dismisses Democrats' Complaint Against Campaign For Vermont


Well, that was fast.

A week after the Vermont Democratic Party filed a complaint alleging election law violations by the Campaign for Vermont, Attorney General Bill Sorrell (pictured in this 2010 photo) dimissed it. The Campaign for Vermont, a right-leaning advocacy group, was founded by Shelburne resident and retired Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman.

Democratic Party executive director Jesse Bragg accused Campaign for Vermont of violating state election law by running a radio ad critical of Gov. Peter Shumlin's position on education funding. Bragg said the February 6 ad crossed the line from issue advocacy into electioneering. As such, Bragg said Campaign for Vermont was in violation of campaign law and a recent court ruling prohibiting groups from spending more than $500 without registering as a political committee.

Sorrell, a Democrat, disagreed. (Download the AG's press release. Download the AG's letter responding to the state Democrats's complaint.)

"The attorney general's office concluded that the ad addressed a policy issue that is currently pending in the Vermont Legislature and did not demonstrate that its purpose was to support or oppose a candidate for Vermont office," a press release said.

Campaign for Vermont has been critical of key parts of Shumlin's agenda such as a statewide health insurance exchange and renewable energy goals, and has spent tens of thousands of dollars — and possibly several times that amount — broadcasting its message in radio advertisements across the state. Because it's registered as a 501(c)4 and not a political committee, Campaign for Vermont doesn't have to disclose how much it's spending, or where its funding comes from, although Lisman told Seven Days he's the sole contributor so far. (All that was the subject of this week's Fair Game column.)

Sorrell's decision is a victory for Lisman and Campaign for Vermont, and a setback for Democrats, who fear that Lisman may be using the group and his deep pockets as a launching pad to run for governor, Senate or Congress this fall — something Lisman has repeatedly denied.

Lisman claimed victory in a press release. "Today's decision ensures Vermonters need not fear attack for expressing themselves," he stated. "We hope Vermonters will be even more encouraged than ever to demand that Vermont government be more transparent, accountable, and propserity-minded."

Bragg told Seven Days the party is "deeply disappointed" in Sorrell's decision and doesn't believe the complaint was vigorously investigated.

"How quickly they turned this around, it seems to us there wasn't a full-on investigation," he said. "They may have taken a look at our allegations, but we're going to explore other options for enforcement of Vermont's campaign finance laws."

But what other options do they have?

Shumlin"We don't know yet," Bragg said. "That's what we're going to check out. We really do think that this was a politically motivated ad in an election year and failed to see the distinction between the ruling that Crawford made against Green Mountain Future and the spirit and message behind Campaign for Vermont's ads."

Bragg is referring to Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford and his decision in the case of Vermont v. Green Mountain Future. As Bragg put it, that case "essentially held that an advertisement, costing more than $500 and ran within a year of the election, that reasonably refers to a candidate triggers political committee status." The Campaign for Vermont ad was"clearly" targeted at Shumlin as a candidate, rather than his legislative agenda, Bragg contended.

Shumlin hasn't formally announced his bid for a second term yet, but under the law, he is considered a candidate because he has raised more than $500 in the current election cycle.

Assistant Attorney General Megan Shafritz said the AG's office looks at several objective criteria to determine if an ad is targeted at a candidate. Among them: whether the advertisement makes frequent references to a candidate or instead focuses on a legislative issue; whether the message comments on a candidate's character, qualifications, or fitness for office; whether the message mentions an individual's candidacy, an upcoming election, a challenger, or a political party; and the timing of the advertisement.

Shafritz said the ad that snared Green Mountain Future, an advocacy group funded largely by the Democratic Governors Association, differed markedly from the Campaign for Vermont ad in that it prominently featured a candidate's name, aired just prior to the 2010 gubernatorial election, and "plainly questioned a candidate's fitness for office."

She also said it differs from the television ad that is the subject of a civil lawsuit Sorrell brought against the Republican Governor's Association and Shumlin's 2010 rival, Republican Brian Dubie, which began running immediatley after Shumlin won the Democratic primary in 2010. "It used music and images to create an atmosphere for foreboding and concluded with the words 'we've had enough,'" Shafritz observed.

In a letter to Bragg, Assistant Attorney General Susanne R. Young wrote: "While the text of the radio advertisement you provided to us mentions Governor Shumlin, its focus is on property taxes and the funding of education. Even assuming Governor Shumlin is currently a candidate, the ad does not mention an election, was not aired close in time to an election, and does not attack Governor Shumlin's character or fitness for office. Rather, it addressses a policy issue that is currently pending in the Vermont Legislature.

"Accordingly," Young concludes, "Campaign for Vermont's adverstisment does not demonstrate the purpose of supporting or opposing a candidate for Vermont office."

Bragg argues that as Vermont campaigns get longer and longer, determining what's "close in time to an election" is subjective.

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