State Attorney General Bill Sorrell has settled with former gubernatorial candidate Brian Dubie and the Republican Governors Association over allegedly illegal campaign donations, with Dubie and the RGA coughing up $50,000 between them.
In December 2011, the state sued Dubie’s 2010 political campaign and the RGA, alleging that Dubie shared confidential poll results with the RGA, which then used that information to tailor advertisements backing Dubie.
According to the Vermont Superior Court, which signed off on the settlement, that counts as a “related expenditure,” or money spent by a supposedly independent political action committee, which has actually been co-ordinated with the candidate the PAC backs.
The advertising, if so coordinated, should be considered a donation to the Dubie campaign, and is subject to a $6,000 contribution cap. Sorrell’s office argued that the RGA’s radio and TV ad blitz, worth about $242,000, was an illegal donation far exceeding this limit.
“We saw this as a pretty clear violation of the law from the get-go,” Sorrell told VTDigger.
He said this settlement wasn’t a case of Dubie and the RGA saying: “We did absolutely nothing wrong, but are willing to pay some money to settle this.” In fact, said Sorrell, the court ruled in favor of the state on four of five counts.
“I think we did fully prosecute it,” said Sorrell. “What we contended in our complaint is upheld. … The court ruled that it was a violation.”
Under the agreement, the RGA must pay a civil penalty of $30,000 to the state within a month. Dubie must pay $10,000 to the state, and donate $10,000 to the Vermont Foodbank, a common remedy in settlements with the state.
Brady Toensing, Dubie’s attorney, said in a statement: “We are pleased with this resolution. It recognizes that Brian Dubie did not know about and was not personally involved in any of the conduct at issue. Importantly, it also recognizes that the Dubie campaign and the RGA ‘attempted to act in good faith to comply with Vermont’s campaign finance laws,’ which are extremely complicated and murky.”
The RGA tells a different story from both Dubie’s attorney and Sorrell, maintaining that no laws were broken. ”The RGA acted in good faith, and we maintain that no laws were violated,” read a statement from RGA spokesman Jon Thompson.
“Rather than incur litigation costs for the next two years, the RGA elected to resolve this matter amicably,” he said.
Tougher penalties for the RGA reflect the state’s belief that it is the more culpable party in the matter, said Sorrell. Given their staff of expert lawyers, they should’ve immediately realized that sharing the poll data clearly violated campaign finance rules, Sorrell said.
More importantly, he continued, the RGA requested the data from Dubie’s campaign, rather than Dubie offering it up pro-actively to the organization. The RGA works to elect Republican governors across the nation, and used the Dubie data in part to gauge how much strength to lend to the campaign.
Both Dubie and the RGA could have faced much steeper penalties, in the hundreds of thousands, if they hadn’t settled and the state won its enforcement action. Each campaign finance violation calls for a $10,000 maximum fine, with the possibility that parties could be penalized for each instance of an ad being broadcast, even if it’s the same ad on different channels or radio stations.
“The fine could have been in the stratosphere,” said Sorrell.
In the last three weeks, lawyers for the RGA and Dubie flew down from Washington, D.C., to meet and discuss the settlement in person, Sorrell said. The settlement concludes an investigation begun in 2010, and litigation which withstood a move by Dubie to dismiss the lawsuit. The lawsuit saw Dubie’s campaign manager Corry Bliss and former RGA political director Dennise Casey, a former Jim Douglas campaign manager, deposed, among others.
Sorrell did mention, however, that the state found no evidence that there was a “willful intent to evade campaign finance laws.”
“They certainly contend they were acting, thinking they were in compliance” with such rules, said Sorrell. Although Dubie himself, a former Republican lieutenant governor, was not deposed, Sorrell said in a recent meeting Dubie told him that he didn’t know about the RGA request for data, or his campaign’s decision to share the data, a claim which Sorrell believes.
Attempts to reach Dubie for comment directly were unsuccessful. In a June 2012 legal memo documenting his claim to dismiss the motion, Dubie is said to have met with RGA personnel twice in the summer of 2010, where the alleged misconduct wasn’t discussed.
“Nowhere is Governor [sic] Dubie alleged to have had any involvement or even knowledge of the sharing of the polling data,” reads the memo, which complains that Sorrell presented no evidence to show that Dubie personally knew or was involved with “sharing polling information to intentionally co-ordinate campaign expenditures.”
The case represents the first time a political organization has faced penalties for co-ordinating its spending with an electoral campaign in Vermont. It was the only ongoing litigation related to co-ordinated expenditures, since a Burlington court dismissed a similar complaint from former attorney general candidate Jack McMullen.
It’s unclear if the RGA has faced legal action in other states over its use of poll results, though Sorrell said in 2010 the organization started asking several gubernatorial campaigns for data, which in itself isn’t at all illegal.
The settlement sends a stern message to candidates and outside political organizations, Sorrell said. “Playing by the rules of our campaign finance laws is important,” he said. “And its not just important for local or statewide candidates in Vermont. It’s important for out-of-state PACs that are involved in races all over the country. Here in Vermont we take our campaign finance laws seriously.”
The story now reads: The case represents the first time a political organization has faced penalties for co-ordinating its spending with an electoral campaign in Vermont. It was the only ongoing litigation related to co-ordinated expenditures, since a Burlington court dismissed a similar complaint from former attorney general candidate Jack McMullen. This story was updated at 10:02am on April 22, 2013.