After news broke that Vermonters First founder Tayt Brooks lied about a dinner he had with Randy Brock on Tuesday, the chair of the Vermont Democratic Party sharply criticized Brooks, and said there could be possible future legal action.
Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell said much stronger evidence would be needed to trigger an investigation from his office — beyond the fact that a dinner conversation occurred between the two parties, even if Vermonters First placed an ad explicitly supporting Randy Brock or attacking Gov. Peter Shumlin.
“Theoretically, Tayt Brooks could have dinner every night with Randy Brock, with the super-PAC taking advertising that favors Randy Brock or attacks Peter Shumlin,” said Sorrell. “Those facts alone aren’t evidence of a violation of the law. The question is what they were talking about when they had dinner.”
Brooks wouldn’t disclose the nature of the conversation, short of saying that it “had nothing to do with Vermonters First, or campaign strategy, or anything along those lines.” He said both he and Brock live in Franklin County and that he considers Brock and his wife, who was also at the dinner, personal friends.
Sorrell couldn’t say exactly what sort of evidence would prove coordination between a candidate and a super PAC making supposedly independent expenditures, but pointed to the sharing of confidential polling data, in a 2011 lawsuit, as one instance of the kind of hard evidence required.
That lawsuit, filed against the Republican Governors Association PAC and Brian Dubie’s campaign, alleging coordination between the two, is pending in Washington Superior Court. To Sorrell’s knowledge, that is the first and only such Vermont suit under his tenure alleging coordinated expenditures, though he added that such suits had also been filed federally and in other states.
In a statement released yesterday, VDP chair Jake Perkinson said: “Clearly Vermonters can’t believe what Tayt Brooks says and it’s no surprise that his organization’s ads are misleading, counterfactual, and negative. … We take any potential collaboration between Randy Brock’s campaign and the Super PAC Vermonters First very seriously.”
While Perkinson agreed that framing the issue as a mere conversation between Brock and Brooks may not necessarily warrant an investigation or a suit, he said that the AG isn’t the only party able to pursue legal action. A state’s attorney or other candidates could be potential litigants.
Describing the current situation as still broadly “hypothetical,” given that Vermonters First hasn’t yet explicitly supported Brock as a candidate, Perkinson said that the “specter” of such independent expenditures had been raised by the health care ad already run by Vermonters First. He wouldn’t rule out a possible a lawsuit in the future.
“You’ve got an issue that is closely identified with a candidate, with an ad that is directly opposed to the viewpoint that the candidate is expressing,” said Perkinson. “Just because it doesn’t address someone specifically, doesn’t name somebody, doesn’t mean it isn’t run in support of a candidate. … We have to judge it on a case-by-case basis.”
Compared to the 2011 lawsuit, though, Perkinson said: “We don’t have as many facts gathered in that case as of yet. But we haven’t had forthcoming disclosures from either Randy Brock or Tayt Brooks about the nature of purpose of their conversations.”
“They could put the controversy to bed if they just revealed what it is they talked about,” said Perkinson, who said he wanted to know whether Brock campaign manager Darcie Johnston or Vermonters First funder Lenore Broughton attended the dinner. Brooks said that the dinner involved himself, Brock, and Brock’s wife.
Brooks called the incident with Seven Days reporter Paul Heintz a “miscommunication,” described the whole question of his relationship with Brock a “non-issue,” and lashed back at Democrats.
“Howard Dean was out there campaigning for Bill Sorrell, cutting ads for super-PACs for Bill Sorrell – where were the Democrats then, where was the conversation then?” asked Brooks. “This is a complete non-issue, and they don’t want to talk about the issues, about health care or the funding of health care.”
Brock had nothing more to say about the dinner, maintaining that he’d remained “entirely candid” about it. “Tayt has been a friend of mine, for many years, and long before the PAC,” said Brock. “It’s time to move on.”
He dismissed the prospect of future litigation. “A lawsuit, for what? On what basis?”