Financing questioned in political ad campaign

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(Host) Outside groups have entered Vermont’s political campaigns with a barrage of a TV and radio ads. The attorney general and the Secretary of State’s office want to know if all of these groups have followed Vermont campaign finance laws.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The issue was raised this week when the Republican Governor’s Association launched a $300,000 TV and radio campaign in the governor’s race. Democrats complained to the Attorney General’s office that the group failed to register with the Secretary of State. Officials in that office say the law requires organizations to disclose to the state if they are purchasing political advertising that appears to back a candidate. A lawyer in the Attorney General’s office says that late Tuesday night, the Republican Governor’s Association did file documents that disclosed it had bought the air time.

The latest group to weigh in with political ads in a Vermont campaign is the American Taxpayers’ Alliance. The organization is based in Washington, D.C. and was founded by Scott Reed, a longtime Republican activist. The ads criticize Democrat Cheryl Rivers for supporting the Act 60 school funding law. The Taxpayers’ Alliance then gives out Rivers’ home phone number and asks voters to call her.

By late Wednesday afternoon, the group had not told the state how much it’s spending on the ads. Mark Michaud is a spokesman for the Vermont Democratic Party.

(Michaud) “This is the second time within the last four days that an organization that’s funded by massive, unregulated corporate contributions has come in and is spending money in large amounts in Vermont in an attempt to influence the outcome of the election. And they’re not complying with state law. We don’t know where this money is coming from. We don’t know how much they’re spending.”

(Dillon) The Taxpayers’ Alliance has some links to the Vermont Republican Party. James Bopp, a lawyer who represented Vermont Right to Life and the Republican State Committee, also gives legal advice to the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Bopp says he’s not representing the Alliance in Vermont. But he says the group would only fall under Vermont’s campaign finance law if it was advocating a particular candidate.

(Bopp) “Unless the communication expressly advocates the election of a candidate then it’s not governed by this statute at all.”

(Dillon) But the Secretary of State’s office disagrees. They say that the Alliance is required to disclose how much it’s spending on ads but they may not have to say who has contributed to the campaign. Secretary of State Deb Markowitz says that the state has allowed non-profit groups like the Taxpayers’ Alliance to avoid disclosure of donors. She says her office and the Attorney General’s office are reviewing the situation.

(Markowitz) “At this point it really is a loophole. The purpose of the campaign finance law is to let the public know who it is that’s spending money to influence our elections and how they’re spending the money. This seems to be a loophole that allows organizations or individuals to form a corporation and then therefore hide from the public eye.”

(Dillon) Vermonters will also hear ads from a group that’s aligned with Democrats in the fall election. A political action committee founded by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream has bought $12,000 in radio ads that link Governor Jim Douglas to President George Bush. Cohen’s group has filed disclosure records with the Secretary of State’s office.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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