State Democrats see cameraman as sign of GOP lawbreaking

The Vermont Democratic Party filed a campaign finance complaint with the attorney general’s office Tuesday alleging that the Republican Governors Association improperly coordinated with gubernatorial candidate Phil Scott’s campaign in producing television ads.

Under state law, coordination between a political action committee —like the one funded by the RGA — and a candidate’s campaign in producing and placing advertisements is prohibited.

In this case, the Vermont Democratic Party alleges the ads by the PAC — called A Stronger Vermont — were not done independently of the Scott campaign. Campaign finance laws do not allow expenditures by a PAC that are “intentionally facilitated by, solicited by, or approved by the candidate or the candidate’s committee.”

The standard for improper coordination, according to state law, requires “knowledge of the fact, or willful blindness toward the fact that the action will be used in connection with an activity or expenditure on the candidate’s behalf.”

Attorney General William Sorrell said Tuesday that his staff would look at the ads in the next day or so and do some research before deciding whether to go forward with a formal investigation.

“For us to launch a real investigation, we have to have reason to believe that there has been a violation,” Sorrell said. “It’s not just simple speculation. It’s a serious thing for us to launch an investigation. So we’ve got to see what sort of flesh is on the bones.”

In the complaint, party Executive Director Conor Casey alleges the close-up shots of Scott in the ads indicate the lieutenant governor must have been aware of the RGA crew. The ads also feature crisp audio of Scott speaking.

“The nature of the footage — up close shots of Mr. Scott — strongly suggests that the cameraman was allowed to remain in close proximity to Mr. Scott in order to obtain better quality images,” Casey wrote.

A photo on Scott’s Facebook page shows a cameraman filming a campaign event that was featured in one of the RGA ads. A separate video on Scott’s Facebook page shows another cameraman closely filming the lieutenant governor and his supporters pulling a tractor-trailer in Barre. The ads include images from the locations where the cameramen are seen.

Phil Scott
This photo on Phil Scott’s Facebook page shows a cameraman, at left in a baseball cap, filming a campaign event.

Most of the footage in the RGA ads appears to have been filmed on the last weekend of July. The events featured in the spots include the Barre Truck Pull on July 30, a meet-and-greet at Maria’s Bagels in Barre on July 30 and an event on Lake Bomoseen on July 31.

Brittney Wilson, Scott’s campaign spokeswoman, said there had been no coordination at all with the RGA.

“This is absurd, clearly a distraction,” Wilson said.

“All of our events we post on our website, and those are open to our supporters, and a lot of time we even see our opposition show up at our events and film Phil,” she said. “It’s not hard to figure out where Phil is going to be.”

The RGA released its first ad in support of Scott the day after the Aug. 9 primary, shortly over a week after the events at the end of July. The national group’s PAC subsequently released three additional ads and has spent more than $500,000 in support of Scott’s bid.

Allegations of coordination between national PACs and local campaigns are not new to Vermont.

After the 2010 election, the attorney general’s office sued the RGA and Brian Dubie, alleging improper coordination between Dubie’s gubernatorial campaign and the governors association. Specifically, the state alleged Dubie shared confidential poll results with the RGA, which then used that information to tailor advertisements backing Dubie. In the end, $90,000 in penalties were levied on Dubie and the RGA.

Wilson said the Scott campaign would never risk coordination when Vermont’s state laws are so strict and large penalties are possible.

Wilson said that if any coordination should be investigated, it was between the Democratic Governors Association and gubernatorial candidate Sue Minter. Wilson pointed to recent reporting from Seven Days showing that Minter’s new communications director, Elliot Bent, was interviewed by DGA spokesman Jared Leopold in the hiring process.

“That seems like pretty close coordination to me,” Wilson said.

Leopold disagreed and pointed the finger back at Scott.

Leopold said that because he is not involved with a DGA-related PAC, and instead works for the main wing of the organization, he is allowed to advise campaigns around the country and routinely does so.

“It’s disturbing that Phil Scott and his national Republican backers don’t understand Vermont campaign finance laws that ban coordination with independent expenditure committees,” Leopold said in a statement. “Phil Scott has serious questions to answer about whether he illegally coordinated with an independent expenditure group that spent more than $500,000 to prop up his campaign with TV ads.”

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Jasper Craven

About Jasper

Jasper Craven is VTDigger’s political reporter. A Vermont native, he first discovered his love for journalism at the Caledonian Record. He double-majored in print journalism and political science at Boston University, and worked in the Boston Globe’s Metro and Investigative units. While at the Globe he collaborated on Shadow Campus, a three-part investigative series focused on greed and mismanagement in Boston’s off-campus student housing market. The series was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
He also spent two years at MuckRock, a news sited dedicated to investigation and analysis of government documents. 

Craven covered Vermont’s U.S. Congressional delegation for the Times Argus in the summer of 2014, and worked as a Metro reporter for the Chicago Tribune before joining the staff of VTDigger.

Email: [email protected]

Follow Jasper on Twitter @Jasper_Craven

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  • Gary Murdock

    It’s desperation time. A candidacy based entirely on climate change and Irene must not be cutting the mustard. It is puzzling though, Scott has been for the most part AWOL so far, does he ever leave the Barre / Montpelier area? For an election with no incumbent, this election has certainly turned out to be extremely boring, uneventful and without substance.

    • Renée Carpenter

      Guess you haven’t been paying attention. In addition to representing Waterbury in the legislature, Sue Minter has graduate degrees in community development and planning, that she has used for the benefit of many Vermont communities, not to mention her entire professional career. In addition, she’s come out with a number of very specific policy statements. Whether one agrees or not with her ideas and positions about the role of government in a democratic society, she has an outstanding record of accomplishments for which some of us are very thankful, and that include, and go way beyond, her skillful, compassionate, and effective leadership necessary for her success after Irene, and an in-depth understanding about climate change that informs her awareness about the necessity to urgently respond.

      • Bruce Wilkie

        Sue Minter is Shumlin Lite, a ridgeline desecrator and someone who wants to make us the highest taxed state in the nation.

      • Julia Purdy

        Maybe we need fewer degreed professionals and more pragmatic people with roots in Vermont outside the Montpelier-Burlington nexus. And I immediately reject the notion that we the governed should be “thankful” in any way for a politician’s “outstanding record of accomplishments,” whatever they may be. In spite of a mild spike in the median income in the Northeast, in Vermont the poverty rate has stayed about steady, according to the new Census income and poverty report. Let’s worry about that and poverty’s attendant problems of drugs, poor learning achievement, hunger and low-grade employment before we get too carried away with creating a new utopia.

      • Kim Fried

        Don’t forget the many successes in her horse back riding career.

    • Jamie Carter

      Scott has been out and about quite a bit. But yes, it does seem like more events are located around Barre then other parts, but he has been around.

      I do agree, this appears to be pure desperation on the part of the Vermont Dem. Party. Even Sorrell will have a hard time justifying an investigation here. A camerman took a picture, that’s hardly coordination. The Leopold issue seems way more likely to amount to coordination, but even that seems petty, which is likely why no one brought up until accuasations started flying.

  • Tom Wheaton

    The attacks against Phil by the DGA and the VT Democratic Party are a sign that they know Minter is in trouble. This is ridiculous, They are really getting nasty and it is only going to backfire on them. Anyone who knows Phil, knows that he is an honest guy who would absolutely never do something like this…especially with what happened to Dubie. If Minter cannot win on her own merit, then that is her fault. But lets talk about the real issues, not if a camera man was at an event. The Dems have only themselves to blame for likely losing this election due to their bad policies that are slowly crushing middle-class Vermonters.

    • Kim Fried

      Minter’s only chance is to have her mentor Shumlin out there supporting her. Maybe he’s just too darn busy cutting ribbons.

      • Bruce Wilkie

        Shumlin’s support is the kiss of death

      • John Zuppa

        This reminds me of the Last Act of a Desperate Woman….

        Or the First Act of King Lear…

    • Walter Carpenter

      “This is ridiculous, They are really getting nasty and it is only going to backfire on them.”

      Or show that they are right and it is Scott who is the desperate one and that he did break Vt law with this stronger Vt super pac.

      • Julia Purdy

        And so what, anyway? The average voter could care less. This kind of squabble is exactly what turns people off and turns them toward loonies like Trump. And it’s boring!

  • Tom Sullivan

    ““This is absurd, clearly a distraction,” Wilson said”

    Or it could the VT Democratic party retaliating against Phil Scott for not debating Sue Minter.

    • Walter Carpenter

      “Or it could the VT Democratic party retaliating against Phil Scott for not debating Sue Minter.”

      That empty chair speaks volumes about Scott.

      • Dave Stevens

        Something against including a third political party in the debate Mr Carpenter?

        • Walter Carpenter

          🙂 The question remains up front. Why did Scott sit out the debate? Third party, fourth party, fifth, sixth….12th, why did Scott avoid the debate without the other party there? What’s he hiding?

      • Julia Purdy

        That’s exactly right–there are clearly certain games Scott will not play, and petty exclusiveness is one of them. So Minter got to have the podium all to herself, thanks to Mike Smith’s wrongheaded call.

      • Julia Purdy

        And… Smith’s rationale for excluding the Liberty Union candidate? He’ll take up 30% of the debate and will only get 10% of the vote–real mean-spirited, pencil-headed, bottom-line thinking there, and a complete travesty of the function and purpose of candidate debates.

      • christopher hamilton

        Well no. And yes.
        The empty chair does speak volumes but it’s not that simple.
        Phil Scott like Jim Douglas before him has been a consistent vote getter across Vermont. Yes, he ducked Sue Minter in a debate. He can, temporarily at least, afford to. If his internal polls said he was trailing, he’d have shown up, even without the Spaceman.
        Scott’s strength is not necessarily being a highly articulate policy wonk. His perceived strength is at bringing people together to get stuff done.

        For those who (for whatever reason) don’t like or plan to vote for Scott, the empty chair means one thing. To most Vermonters, 99% of whom weren’t going to listen to the radio debate; they probably don’t much care.

    • Steven Farnham

      So why didn’t he debate her? What’s he afraid of? Is his campaign “in trouble” too?

      • Jamie Carter

        He had a previous commitment if I remember correctly

      • Dave Stevens

        Your asking the wrong question. The question you should be asking is why does Ms Minter want to exclude a third party candidate?

        • robert bristow-johnson

          Minter has no position on “excluding” an inconsequential candidate. but WDEV does and the one-hour debate (more like an interview) was happening under the auspices of WDEV because it was going live on the radio. it’s perfectly reasonable for WDEV to restrict this short debate to the two candidates who have a chance of winning.

          • Julia Purdy

            And what, pray tell, is the function of the press? Is it not to lay forth all sides so informed citizens can draw their own conclusions and act accordingly? What if the Liberty Union candidate actually had something constructive to contribute to my thinking? This is censorship, folks, plain and simple. I’m shocked that any thinking person should be defending it. Or are we now in some “post-” era where all the old criteria and rules of engagement are SO OVER?

        • Andi Rosin

          It was not Minter who did not want the third party candidate. It was the hosts of the debate.

          Phil Scott has been in many debates in the past while running for office and he never had a restriction that he would only appear if a third party candidate was allowed to do so.

          It appears to me that Phil Scott was afraid to debate one on one with Sue Minter and used the third party candidate as an excuse to avoid it.

          • Walter Carpenter

            “It appears to me that Phil Scott was afraid to debate one on one with Sue Minter and used the third party candidate as an excuse to avoid it.”

            I think you’re right here.

        • As much as I like Bill “spaceman” Lee he would only be a distraction in a debate. Phil Scott and his handlers think the election is in the bag, so why risk a debate.

  • Mike Ponte

    Underhanded tactics like this are necessary when you platform consists of gun control, desecrating our ridge-lines and crushing the working citizens with a carbon tax and a tax on all services.

  • Lost in the article is education and skill that good cameramen employ often after graduating from our top journalism and broadcasting schools across the country. Could it be that the cameraman, who was clearly focused in the picture, was merely doing his job without any alleged coordination?

    Mr. Conor Casey, Executive Director of the Vermont Democrats has a very artful and long history when it comes to Lt. Governor Phil Scott. Mr. Casey’s hostile rhetoric towards Phil Scott over time has been particularly ugly and not in the spirit of Vermont or the proper respect when referring to the Lt. Governor of the State of Vermont.

    At best, the Vermont democrats have nothing but Press Releases and frivolous campaign finance complaints to mount in this gubernatorial election. No wonder Vermonters recognize that Phil Scott will bring the change we need to state government in a leader we can trust.

    • Walter Carpenter

      “Mr. Casey’s hostile rhetoric towards Phil Scott over time has been particularly ugly and not in the spirit of Vermont or the proper respect…”

      Well, he was right to call Scott out on this one, since trust is an issue here. I will withhold any judgements until after the investigation, but maybe we cannot trust Scott as a leader after all.

  • Katherine Silta

    Shall we start listing the litany of missteps, screwups, obfuscation perpetrated by the current administration and legislature? This little technicality is nothing compared to the mess we currently find ourselves in. Perhaps the fact that the race is not seen as a “lock” for the Democratic candidate is hitting a nerve. And PS , I will be voting for Dems for national tickets, but no way for in state office seekers.

    • Julia Purdy

      I recently got a call from the local Democratic Party polling me on how I was planning to vote. The first question was: would I be voting for Sue Minter? First I defined myself as an independent. Then I said I would not be, nor would I be voting for a Democrat lieut. gov. The caller asked if I “vote Republican” and I said I do not vote any straight ticket, and that I just want to restore balance and democracy in Vermont, which has been dominated in the legislative and executive branches by a single party, which tends to snuff out and even viciously attack input from those they disagree with. There has to be a dialectic and from there you arrive at the compromise that is best for (almost) everyone. We haven’t had it.

  • David R. Black

    I listened to the Scott/ Minter debate last week and clearly Scott won hands down.

    • John Zuppa

      LOL……You’re right..!!!

  • Chris Laden

    CBS and CNN have now been caught editing video interviews to better favor Clinton!!

    Why not have a story showing how a totally bias media is essentially donation free money for the Dems. That would be a great story.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    This is the democrat tactic when Minter’s claim that lack of gun control as the most serious issue facing Vermonters failed to catch fire with the tax-overburdened electorate. This seriously smacks of desperation but adds some comic relief to the election. Thanks for the chuckles, democrats!

    • Julia Purdy

      That and building more trail networks to draw more tourists (as if they ever use even a fraction of the trails we have now–unless they are ski trails). Oh well, life’s a beach for some people…

  • Paul Kenny

    Sue Minter responsive? Are you serious? One of the members of “Friends of Windham” emailed her requesting she respond with more information about her pro wind turbines position. Ms Minter NEVER replied. A simiIlar email to PHIL SCOTT and he responded within a couple of hours with a detailed mesaage explaining how as governor he would stop turbine devlopment in Vermont. There are new winds a blowing in Vermont, Sue and Peter. Bon voyage

    • Rick Grabowski

      Nicely put Paul,by chance is there room for a Public Service Board and Solier Sighting Committee too chatch the winds.