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July 26, 2012

Hold the Applause: Sorrell, Sessions and Super PACs in Vermont

Updated below with comment from Sorrell challenger T.J. Donovan


Did a campaign finance decision handed down last month by U.S. District Judge William K. Sessions III limit the role of money in Vermont politics — or did it open up the floodgates?

If you're Attorney General Bill Sorrell, it depends when you ask.

A day after Sessions sided with the state in Vermont Right to Life Committee v. Sorrell, the attorney general's office issued a press release touting the decision as a victory for Vermont's campaign finance laws.

"Attorney General William Sorrell applauded the decision," the June press release reads, quoting Sorrell as saying, "The Court's ruling provides resounding confirmation of the validity of Vermont's campaign finance disclosure laws and the State's ability to address Vermonter's [sic] concerns about the influence of money in politics."

Fast-forward a month to Wednesday, when a new press release issued by the AG's office announced that, "in light of" Sessions' decision, so-called "super PACS" in Vermont are free to raise as much as they want from whomever they want and spend it however they like — so long as they do not directly coordinate with political campaigns.

The new guidance from the AG's office comes in response to the establishment last week of a new liberal advocacy group called Vermont Priorities, whose founders describe it as Vermont's first super PAC. The group's consultant, KSE Partners lobbyist Todd Bailey, said at the time that by registering with the Secretary of State's office, it was attempting to clarify whether the new PAC could indeed raise and spend money in unlimited quantities.

The answer, it appears, is yes. The AG's office said Wednesdays it "will not enforce the $2000 contribution limit for those PACs that demonstrate they make only independent expenditures."

But if Sessions' decision confirms that super PACs are legit in Vermont, why was Sorrell so stoked about it?

"It upheld all of Vermont's laws that were challenged and rejected all constitutional challenges the plaintiffs lodged in that case," explains Assistant Attorney General Megan Shafritz, who heads the AG's civil division. "So in that sense, no, I don't think there's an inconsistency or difference of opinion. The court's rulings were entirely in the state's favor, in terms of the laws that were challenged."

Indeed, Sessions' decision affirmed Vermont's PAC disclosure laws and found that because Vermont Right to Life's supposedly independent PAC wasn't actually all that independent, it had to adhere to Vermont's $2000 contribution limits.

As the liberal blog Green Mountain Daily noted at the time, early press accounts mostly bought into the AG's spin that Sessions' decision was a resounding victory for campaign finance reform. But as the Vermont Press Bureau's Peter Hirschfeld noted, the significance of Sessions' decision was that it "effectively overturns" the state's $2000 contribution limit for groups that are actually independent, "opening the door to Super PACs in Vermont."

In other words, if the VRLC simply hadn't done such a crappy job of bookkeeping, it could've raised whatever it pleased. So while the state may have won the fact-based battle, it lost the super PAC war.

"The State's arguments do not provide grounds to doubt the broadly-held view that states may not limit contributions independent-expenditure-only groups receive from single sources," Sessions wrote.

So why would Sorrell have "applauded" a decision that, ultimately, gives the green light to big money in Vermont politics? Was it because, facing a tough reelection fight, he hoped to play up his office's win and play down Vermont's loss?

Based upon remarks Sorrell made to VTDigger's Alan Panebaker at the time, it's not entirely clear that the AG agreed that Sessions' ruling opened the door to super PACs in Vermont. He reportedly said it was still an open question as to whether the state could impose contribution limits on independent groups.

"Judge Sessions did not have to reach the issue of a contribution limits [sic] on the part of a political committee that legitimately is independent and does independent expenditures," Sorrell told Digger. "That issue is left unresolved by this case."

Except not anymore, it seems. With the guidance Sorrell's office issued Wednesday, it's clear he now thinks the issue has been resolved.

So is Sorrell still applauding the VRLC decision?

"Yes," Shafritz says. "Particularly, the office applauds the court's ruling on the laws that were challenged."


After this story was posted, Sorrell’s opponent in the race for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, responded to an earlier request for comment on the AG’s new guidance. 

"Like all Vermonters I am disappointed in the recent decision regarding campaign finance in Vermont,” Donovan said in a statement. “Despite some initial claims of victory, this decision, born out of the Citizen's United Case, opens a dangerous door for unlimited spending in Vermont's elections.“

Photo credit: Paul Heintz

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