Campaign finance ruling trouble for single-payer group Vermont Leads

CAMPAIGN FINANCE: Single-payer health care PAC Vermont Leads is being investigated for accepting donations in excess of $2,000 and giving to dozens of Democrat and Progressive candidates.

By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog

Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell agreed with a state court ruling that the Republican Governor’s Association violated Vermont campaign finance law in 2010 by accepting contributions of more than $2,000.

The opinion doesn’t bode well for single-payer advocate Vermont Leads Inc., which is under investigation for the same violation in this year’s campaign.

According to a statement by the Attorney General’s Office on Monday, the RGA can expect civil penalties of $10,000 for each violation of Vermont’s campaign finance rules. Those rules say PACs that contribute to candidates or parties are prohibited from accepting donations in excess of $2,000.

The Vermont Superior Court, Washington Unit, ruled that the RGA is not an independent-expenditure-only committee — also known as a super PAC — and therefore must abide by the state’s cap on incoming donations.

All eyes now turn to Vermont Leads Inc., which is under investigation for the same violation.

According to complaints filed with the Attorney General’s Office, Vermont Leads Inc., a prominent advocate of single-payer health care, received a $66,000 donation in March from the Vermont NEA, the teachers union whose membership dues typically go to left-leaning causes. The donation appears on Vermont Leads’ March 15 campaign finance disclosure form.

The group has since donated to prominent candidates who support single payer health care in the state, an act that’s illegal under state campaign finance laws.

According to an amended campaign finance disclosure filed Oct. 1, Vermont Leads donated money to Progressive and Democrat politicians. While most donations ranged between $200 and $500, the group donated $500 to the Vermont Progressive Party.

The group reportedly is backing 61 incumbents and 12 challengers in House races and 16 incumbents and six challengers in Senate races.

Peter Sterling, the group’s director, did not return Watchdog.org’s request for comment.

Sharon Toborg, who filed the complaints about Vermont Leads Inc., said her complaint dated Oct. 7 informed the attorney general that Vermont Leads accepted a contribution in excess of the limits. She also said the group failed to file as a PAC with the state.

Toborg’s first complaint, dated Sept. 12, and reported on by VTDigger, focused on the group’s failure to file complete and timely campaign finance reports, and it asked the attorney general to determine whether Vermont Leads PAC met the definition of an independent expenditure only political committee.

The attorney general has yet to respond to Toborg’s request and did not return Watchdog.org’s request for comment.

But in his statement concerning the 2010 violation by the Republican Governors Association, Sorrell explained the dilemma facing both the RGA and Vermont Leads Inc.:

“If a PAC wants to receive unlimited contributions, it must be functionally distinct from PACs that contribute to candidates. Mere separation in name only is insufficient protection against the possibility that funds may flow through the ‘independent’ group to candidates.”

Contact Bruce Parker at bparker@watchdog.org

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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