Election highlights flaws in Vermont campaign finance law

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(Host) Vermont’s six-year-old campaign finance law was designed to curb the influence of money on politics. But by the close of the 2004 political season, it was clear the law had failed in several key areas.

VPR’s John Dillon looks at what went wrong.

(Dillon) In the waning weeks of the gubernatorial campaign, the Republican Governors’ Association spent almost $300,000 on behalf of Governor Jim Douglas. The association’s ad campaign continued, even though the attorney general and later Judge Richard Norton said it was illegal.

(Jon Copans) “The message that comes out of the 2004 cycle is: come on in, welcome to Vermont. Go ahead and do whatever you please because you will not suffer any consequences from that.”

(Dillon) Jon Copans, executive director of the Democratic Party, is clearly frustrated. His party filed a complaint with the attorney general’s office in mid-October, as soon as the Republican Governors’ Association launched its ad campaign.

The legal issue had several parts: First, the Democrats argued that the RGA was a political action committee under the Vermont law. And second, if it was a PAC, the association had to register with the state. Third, as a PAC taking part in a Vermont campaign, the law says the RGA had to limit the donations it received to under $2,000 apiece.

The Democrats ended up wining the legal battle, but losing the war. The attorney general decided not to prosecute until ordered into the case by Judge Norton. In the meantime, some TV stations aired the ads through Election Day.

(Copans) “I don’t think their initial program was hampered in the slightest by the actions of Judge Norton and the attorney general.”

(Dillon) Copans would like to see the law changed to require quick enforcement of potential violations. He points out that the last 30 days are the most critical time in any campaign.

Attorney General William Sorrell doesn’t think it’s practical to mandate a time frame for enforcement. He says he declined to go to court immediately because the RGA argued that it had cleared its activities with someone from the secretary of state’s office.

It came out in court, however, that the RGA’s lawyer got that advice anonymously. He didn’t tell the state official who he was, or what organization he represented. Secretary of State Deb Markowitz says the problem isn’t the law or the guidance her office gave.

(Markowitz) “The whole issue with the RGA was really an enforcement issue. The attorney general’s office made a decision not to enforce. The fact is, our office didn’t give any specific advice that any organization could rely on.”

(Sorrell) “So Deb’s saying we should have gone in earlier? That’s news to me. Maybe her office shouldn’t be giving advice without the caller identifying the organization that is being represented.”

(Dillon) Sorrell is frustrated as well. He says his hands were legally tied by the secretary of state’s advice to the RGA.

(Sorrell) “I think the law definitely needs to be changed in terms of some of the definitions so that it’s much clearer to all those who work with the law and are bound by the law to know what organizations need to comply and if so, how.”

(Dillon) Markowitz remains disappointed that the attorney general didn’t quickly enforce the law this fall.

(Markowitz) “They made a prosecution decision that was up to them to make. I think had it been us sitting in that seat it would have been something different.”

(Dillon) Vermont’s campaign finance law has also faced challenge in the federal courts. Unlike Sorrell, Markowitz says she’s reluctant to suggest changes to the law while it remains under appeal.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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