Time Runs Out For Campaign Finance Complaints

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(Host) Despite legal challenges, campaign ads financed by out-of-state political groups will continue to air through Election Day.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell concedes that the clock is about to run out on the campaign. But he says even if enforcement is warranted, it won’t happen until well after the votes are counted.

VPR’s John Dillon has more.

(Dillon) The attorney general’s office went to state court earlier this week with a pair of lawsuits. They alleged that political organizations financed by national Republicans and Democrats had failed to follow Vermont campaign finance law and need to register as political action committees.

Under state law, PACs have to say how much money they’ve raised – and they have to abide by contribution and spending limits.

But Attorney General Sorrell says the cases will not be resolved for some time.

(Sorrell) "You’d love to have everything wrapped up and all the facts out and the truth be known, and whether it’s a violation or violations by 7 am on Election Day, but you can’t wrap everything up in a neat way like that."

(Dillon) Sorrell’s lawsuits don’t demand that the ads be taken down. The suits simply seek to force groups affiliated with the national parties to register and file disclosure reports in Vermont. And they ask the court to impose a $10,000 penalty for each violation.

But as part of his investigation, Sorrell’s office also asked that Republican Governors Association turn over copies of ads it plans to run in Vermont.

The Republican group then went to federal court to block Sorrell’s investigation. And during a hearing this week, lawyers from the attorney general’s office promised that they would not attempt to have the ads blocked or taken down before Election Day.

(Sorrell) "The court said that there were clearly some constitutional issues that were relevant to this matter. We agreed to not further our investigation as it relates to the RGA before the election."

(Dillon) The clock often runs out on cases like these, says Bert Johnson, an associate professor of political science at Middlebury College.

(Johnson) "Because a lot of the action in campaigns happens in the last few weeks of the race, it is often the case that these kind of claims will be filed late in the campaign and there just won’t be time to do the fact finding and information gathering necessary to make a definitive conclusion until after the election has occurred."

(Dillon) Johnson specializes in campaign finance. He says if the judge imposes large fines, those penalties could have a deterrent effect on future campaigns.

Sorrell says the cases may also spell out the boundaries of Vermont campaign finance law.

(Sorrel) "So the fact that Tuesday is going to come and go without final court decisions on these matters doesn’t mean that reaching decisions from the court is not important guidance for the future."

(Dillon) Court guidance on campaign finance law is not always timely. In 2004, a Vermont court ruled just days before the election that the Republican governors group violated state law with its ads in support of Governor Jim Douglas.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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