Vermont Democratic Party attacks GOP candidates over campaign finance

Rutland City Treasurer Wendy Wilton addressed supporters at the launch of her campaign for state treasurer. VTD Photo/Taylor Dobbs

Rutland City Treasurer Wendy Wilton addresses supporters at the launch of her campaign for state treasurer. VTD File Photo/Taylor Dobbs

Correction and Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Wendy Wilton and Cassandra Gekas violated filing deadline requirements for candidates. The law does not specify when candidates need to file the Bank Designation and Treasurer Appointment Form. However, the Vermont Democratic Party, in a statement to the press, alleged that Wilton had violated the law because she raised more than $500 before she filed the form. She did not, however, violate the law, according to Assistant Attorney General Eve Jacobs-Carnahan. Candidates face no filing deadline for the forms, only PACs and parties must file within 10 days, Carnahan says.

It’s that time of the election cycle known as silly season. The campaigns are starting to heat up — not with heady debate about the issues, but with what politicians are calling “petty” accusations regarding obscure forms and details from recently released campaign finance reports.

The Vermont Democratic Party has been on the offensive, issuing several press releases about inconsistencies or campaign finance violations made by Republican candidates.

Last week, Jake Perkinson, chair of the Vermont Democratic Party, sent out a statement accusing Randy Brock, the GOP candidate for governor, of flip flopping. In December of last year, Brock told the Burlington Free Press he didn’t expect to self-fund his bid for office. According to recent campaign finance reports, he shelled out $300,000 of his own money for his candidacy.

“The fact that Brock had to put so much of his own money into a campaign with no primary opponent is another sign that his agenda is far from the mainstream,” Perkinson said in a statement. “Brock’s campaign is struggling, forcing him to reverse course on self-financing and raising questions about his ability to assemble a viable campaign effort.”

Brock has pointed out that Gov. Peter Shumlin, the Democratic incumbent, also made a significant contribution to his own campaign in the 2010 primary election.

On Monday, the VDP was back at it with a release accusing Wendy Wilton, a Republican candidate for state treasurer, of violating a “candidate filing law.” The party said Wilton neglected to submit a “Bank Designation and Treasurer Appointment Form” in time.

It turns out one of the Democratic Party’s own candidates — Cassandra Gekas, who is running for lieutenant governor — also failed to file the document before the Democrats’ purported 10-day deadline. And though it’s common practice for incumbents to refile the form when they open new bank accounts or bring on a new treasurer, Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s campaign neglected to do so right away.

The Vermont Democratic Party release, issued with the headline “Wilton Violates Candidate Filing Law,” criticized the candidate for failing to file the Bank Designation and Treasurer Appointment Form. In an interview, party officials said candidates must file within 10 days of spending or receiving $500.

“Republican candidate for Treasurer Wendy Wilton violated Vermont law in May 2012 by waiting almost a month to file her Bank Designation and Treasurer Appointment Form with the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office after she passed the $500 filing maximum,” it reads.

Wilton reached the $500 limit at her campaign launch on May 14.

The Democrats’ statement says, “Wilton’s July 2012 campaign finance disclosure report shows that she had already received $6,650.00 in campaign contributions when she filed on June 12, 2012.”

Assistant Attorney General Eve Jacobs Carnahan says while candidates must file the form once they meet the $500 limit, there is no deadline in statute.

“Candidates don’t have a 10-day deadline for filing their Bank Designation and Treasurer Appointment forms. Only PACs and parties have a 10-day deadline,” Carnahan said.

Despite the fact that the deadline for candidates is not enshrined in statute, Perkinson issued scathing remarks about Wilton’s failure to meet it on Monday. “Vermonters deserve a Treasurer who will be fiscally responsible and transparent, not someone who accumulates thirteen times the legally permissible amount prior to making the filings required by law,” he said in the statement. “Wilton’s cavalier decision to wait is disrespectful to Vermonters and unfair to the candidates who are playing by the rules.”

Wilton admits she didn’t file the document within 10 days, but she doesn’t accept the VDP criticism.

“I’m not going to dignify that rhetoric with a response,” she said. “I think they had a candidate who had … a similar challenge to what I did, and they’re going to come after me, and people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Wilton’s treasurer left for vacation four days after her campaign launch, she said. Both the candidate and the campaign treasurer need to sign the form.

“There’s no way I could catch up with her at that point. It’s just one of those things — I couldn’t get her and she couldn’t get me,” Wilton said. “It was my obligation. I wanted it to be there sooner. Didn’t happen. I accept responsibility for it. I’m fine.”

While the Democrats blasted Wilton, they said Gekas, who also neglected to file the form right away, made an honest mistake.

Gekas submitted her Bank Designation and Treasurer Appointment Form on July 11 after she hit the $500 limit on June 21.

Gekas raised $1,650 before she filed her Bank Designation and Treasurer Appointment form on July 11. She said her filings were rushed, as she decided to run for office just before the June 14 candidate filing deadline. She first approached her treasurer, Jerry Greenfield, on June 23 but they wanted to confirm the requirements of the job before he signed on. She says he signed the form July 7, 11 days after she surpassed the $500 limit.

While the VDP said Wilton violated the law (when in fact she hadn’t) party officials called Gekas’ filing lapse an honest mistake made by a rookie candidate for statewide office.

“Sometimes when you have a new candidate coming in to run, a few little things slip by in the beginning,” said Ariel Wengroff, a VDP spokeswoman. While Gekas is new to political candidacy, Wilton is a sitting city treasurer and former state senator.

“We strongly still stand by the release from yesterday. Wendy Wilton’s attitude about filing is instructive of the leadership she would – she wouldn’t be providing to Vermonters,” Wengroff said.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s new campaign treasurer started in early May and didn’t submit the form right away.

Sen. Claire Ayer said Sorrell approached her at the end of the session and asked if she would serve as his treasurer. Ayer accepted, and said in an interview that she’d been signing off on campaigning finances ever since.

While Sorrell’s new Bank Designation and Treasurer Appointment Form was filed July 16, it’s unclear when Ayer first acted in her new role. Campaign manager Mike Pieciak said he wasn’t sure at first. “I think what’s typical in campaigns is that the treasurer is sort of designated and does review the reports and whatnot but is not involved in day-to-day expenditures, but let me just chat with Claire,” he said. In a later interview, Pieciak said his story and Ayer’s lined up. “Her first official act was that campaign finance disclosure form, and the designation form came in with that,” he said.

Ayer made no official action in her capacity as Sorrell’s campaign treasurer between early May and July 16. Sorrell raised at least $64,695 in May and June combined, according to his campaign finance filing.

While it is common practice for candidates to file a new form when they change treasurers, banks or both, there is no statute that requires it. According to the Secretary of State’s director of elections and campaign finance, Kathy Scheele, the re-filing is not required by law.

“The statute does not include a specific requirement that a candidate or a PAC refile a bank and treasurer designation form when there’s a change,” she said. “It’s a common-sense interpretation we’ve made of the law and that to the best of my information and belief no one has disagreed with.”

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Comments

  1. Stan Hopson :

    Talk about attempting to make a new story out of a non-event. Nobody besides a few campaign operatives on both sides get fired up about a disclosure form. What is telling is the intensity the democrats have in going after Wilton. The Shumlin administration sure doesn’t want someone of her keen eye looking after their books.

  2. Jeffrey Wennberg :

    Thank you Taylor Dobbs and VT Digger for pointing out the shallow hypocrisy of the VDP in this feeble attempt to smear Wendy Wilton. Yes, we need a treasurer who follows the rules (which you clearly state she did), but we also need political parties that know the rules before they fire a broadside at a target, and a VT press that calls them on it when they don’t.

  3. Chris Roy :

    The various Vermont campaign finance disclosure forms are unclear, internally inconsistent, and occasionally not in accord with state statute. The Legislature has failed to revisit the law in the wake of the Supreme Court striking down signficiant portions as unconstitutional. The Secretary of State has failed to issue helpful rules or guidance, or to meaningfully reform the disclsoure and reporting forms. The Attorney General and Secretary of State do not coordinate their interpretations. As a consequence, it truly is “silly season,” with partisan attacks over form filing instead of substance.

  4. Chris,

    First, you state “The various Vermont campaign finance disclosure forms are unclear, internally inconsistent.”

    The forms have been edited and are more clear and consistent than in 2010.

    Second, you state “The Legislature has failed to revisit the law in the wake of the Supreme Court striking down signficiant portions as unconstitutional.”

    You are right to a point, however, I must remind you that since the 2006 US Sup Ct decision, the Legislature DID pass Campaign Finance (CF)revisions in 2007 and 2008 – which were vetoed by then Gov Douglas. And I was concerned that the legislature did not address CF this past biennium. It is high on the priority list for us to work with the legislature for clear updated CF language.

    Third, you state, “The Secretary of State has failed to issue helpful rules or guidance, or to meaningfully reform the disclsoure and reporting forms.”

    To the contrary, our CF website has been cleaned up, and we have on our website the Revised 2012 Campaign Finance Guide. We have also made changes to the forms so the information is more consistent and transparent.

    Fourth, you state, “The Attorney General and Secretary of State do not coordinate their interpretations.”

    In fact, we do communicate with the AG’s office frequently. For instance, the CF guide was reviewed and editied by the AGs office, and more recently, I asked the AG for Guidance on the issue of a super PAC in VT.

    Can we improve CF disclosure? Absolutely! One of our top priorities going into 2013 is to update, clarify and provide for more accountable and transparent disclosure. That requires the legislature to review and update the CF statutes and provide funding for new CF/Lobbyist Disclosure software.

    We need all parties to work together to insure that we provide a system that is efficient, transparent and accountable to Vermonters across the spectrum.

  5. Chris Roy :

    Jim: Thank you for your response.

    Movement in the right direction, for sure. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

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