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Editorial: Sorrell’s Punitive Action
on Vermont Campaign Finance Law

Wednesday, April 08, 2015
Efforts to enforce campaign finance laws are certainly laudable, given how thoroughly the American political system is corrupted by campaign cash and the access it buys for donors. Nevertheless, the enforcement action recently filed by Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell against Dean Corren, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor last fall as a Progressive/Democrat, is sufficiently problematic and punitive to undermine support for the state’s campaign finance system.

Under that system, a candidate for lieutenant governor can qualify for public financing by raising at least $17,500 from no fewer than 750 individuals who donate not more than $50 apiece. This Corren did, and he received about $180,000 total in public support for his primary and general election campaigns. In return, candidates who qualify for public financing agree not to solicit, accept or expend additional contributions.

On Oct. 24, the state Democratic Party, at Corren’s request, sent out an email to 19,000 supporters advocating his election and inviting them to a series of rallies at which he and other Democratic candidates would appear. According to Sorrell, this amounted to an in-kind contribution of $255 to Corren’s campaign, and thus violated the law.

“The public financing system that we have in Vermont presents huge benefits to candidates who want to take advantage of that,” Sorrell said. “But along with those benefits are the responsibilities or obligations to play by the rules the Legislature sets.”

OK, but the remedy proposed by the attorney general is to fine Corren $20,000 and require him, as provided by law, to return the public funds that were left at the time of the alleged violation — $52,000. So somehow, the proposed penalty for a $255 violation is $72,000.

Corren, in a federal lawsuit filed against Sorrell, disputes the underlying contention that the email represented a contribution as defined by the law. Presumably the courts will sort out that factual question. But other serious ones are raised by Sorrell’s complaint and the statute that underlies it.

One is a simple matter of proportionality. That is, the penalty bears no rational relationship to the seriousness of the offense, which at worst seems to have been a misinterpretation of what the law required. Since Corren expended virtually all the public funds he received for the campaign, there is no $52,000 to “return” now that the complaint has been filed. It would presumably have to be repaid by him personally, as would the civil fines that Sorrell seeks.

And if the mere sending of an email on behalf of a publicly funded candidate constitutes a violation of the law, in what capacity can political parties function during campaigns? What assistance can they render? The unhealthy effect would seem to be to severely limit their role in the political process.

Finally, if the purpose of publicly financed campaigns is to induce candidates to raise money in small amounts in order to qualify and to reduce the influence of private campaign contributions, the penalties sought here would seem likely to achieve the opposite effect. What candidate would want to seek public financing if, months after an election, he or she could end up on the hook personally for many thousands of dollars because of a minor, even inadvertent violation of the rules? Very few, we would think.

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