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AG Claims Publicly Funded Candidate Violated Campaign Finance Law With Email

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The Vermont Attorney General's office has filed a civil lawsuit claiming the publicly-financed candidate in last year’s race for lieutenant governor committed campaign finance violations. Now, the former candidate has filed a countersuit.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell says that Progressive and Democratic candidate Dean Corren's campaign solicited the Vermont Democratic Party for help with his candidacy that violates Vermont’s campaign finance law.  Corren received $180,000 in public financing and Sorrell says Corren was prohibited from soliciting as little as a postage stamp.   “Our law is very clear that you may not solicit contributions of any amount from other sources and if you do then you’re in violation of the public financing statute and you have to refund all of the unexpended state monies in your account as of  the date of the violation.”

The violation Sorrell says Corren failed to he was asking for and receiving assistance from the Vermont Democratic Party with a mass email worth an estimated $255 to between 16,000 and 19,000 people.   “The Corren campaign asked that a so-called blast email go to all of the recipients on the Democratic party’s email list. It was clearly of value to the Corren campaign. It’s not the cost of the electrons. It’s putting together the list and being able to market, if you will, to the recipients of the list. It’s a contribution reportable by the Corren campaign as well as the Democratic Party. Neither one reported it.”

Sorrell is seeking the return of $52,000 in public funds Corren's campaign had when the email was sent. He's also seeking up to $20,000 in fines.
Corren has filed suit in federal court challenging the Attorney General. That suit says the email was not a contribution because it was related to a campaign event tied to more than three candidates. It also says Vermont’s campaign finance law restricts First Amendment rights and “disproportionately restricts...the right of Option participants to associate with their political parties....” Corren’s attorney John Franco says this case raises a host of constitutional issues.   “Unless this action by the Attorney General’s office goes challenged nobody in their cotton-picking right mind is going to go near public financing in the future because all it’s going to mean to them is a risk of financial ruin if there’s some violation of the campaign finance law that’s triggered. Nobody wants to be involved in a statute where you’re going to be looking at an inquisition by the Attorney General’s office every time you run. I view Mr. Sorrell’s activity as one the most serious threats to civil liberties that we’ve seen in the state of Vermont in its history. This is really egregious. That’s why we went to federal court.”

But the campaign finance law is in line with federal and many other state statutes for public financing according to Middlebury College Associate Professor of Political Science Bert Johnson.  He says part of the deal when a candidate accepts public financing is that no further contributions can be accepted.   “That’s the case in almost any public financing system across the country. In the presidential race there is an option where you can take a lump sum for the fall campaign and you don’t get any more contributions after that. That  was reviewed by the Supreme Court in the 1970's and they found that to be constitutional. Other states do this. So it seems pretty straightforward to me. Now the only thing that’s unclear to me is what counts as a contribution. Maybe the Vermont state law is a little bit unclear about whether an email is a contribution. But it’s pretty clear that once you accept that money you don’t get  any more contributions.”

The Attorney General’s office says the Vermont Democratic Party, which sent the email, has admitted to a campaign finance violation and agreed to pay a $10,000 fine.

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