Bill Sorrell has sued Dean Corren and settled a complaint against the Vermont Democratic Party for allegedly violating the private contribution prohibition of our public campaign finance system.
In case you've missed it, the state is suing Dean Corren personally for coordinating an e-mail blast with the Vermont Dems to the Dems' e-mail list in support of Corren's unsuccessful Lite Gov campaign last year. He's asking the court to fine Corren $72,000.00: $10,000 statutory damages for each of two counts of violating Vermont's campaign finance laws, plus forfeiture of $52,000, the amount Corren had unspent in campaign funds at the time of the alleged violation. Oh yeah, the value of the e-mail was estimated at about $255.00.
Now comes John Franco on behalf of Dean Corren, suing the Attorney General in federal court to block enforcement of the law and the whopper of a penalty Sorrell wants to exact.
I heard about this and I did what any lawyer would do: I read the complaint and I read the law. $72,000 sounded like a lot of money, but from the language of the statute it appears that the $52,000 forfeiture, or “refund” is mandatory, so Dean's probably going to have to cough it up.
It turns out it's not that clear. Corren's complaint and preliminary injunction memorandum raise some very good questions, and I'm going to be interested in seeing how Sorrell answers them.
First, apparently it's not at all clear that this was even a violation. According to Corren, when the Legislature amended the law in 2014 it explicitly excluded this kind of help from being counted as a contribution. The Legislature made findings as part of the law, Act 90, that:
(10) Exempting certain activities of political parties from the definition of what constitutes a contribution is important so as to not overly burden collective political activity. These activities, such as using the assistance of volunteers, preparing party candidate listings, and hosting certain campaign events, are part of a party’s traditional role in assisting candidates to run for office. Moreover, these exemptions help protect the right to associate in a political party.
And the Legislature also expressly excluded this specific activity:
As used in this chapter, “contribution” shall not include any of the following: