By disclosing a dinner date with the head of a conservative super PAC, did Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Brock cost himself a crap-load of free television advertisements?
In this brave new world of post-Citizens United campaign finance regulations, that could well be the case.
During a press conference Brock called Wednesday morning in Berlin to discuss his health care proposals, reporters' questions eventually shifted from the topic at hand to Brock's impressions of Vermonters First, a new, Republican-oriented super PAC.
His answers, at first, were unsurprising: that he'd seen the group's latest commercial slamming single-payer health care reform but hadn't formed a real opinion about it; that he knows its sole donor, Lenore Broughton but not terribly well; and that he has "mixed feelings" about whether it would be helpful for such a super PAC to run ads supporting his campaign.
But then he said something quite surprising: Asked when he last spoke with Tayt Brooks, the political operative behind Vermonters First, Brock said he'd spoken with Brooks the day before. Asked what the two had talked about, Brock clammed right up.
"I won't discuss what I've discussed with him personally, but I can tell you this: It had nothing to do with what's happening with Vermonters First. That is a taboo subject with us," he said.
Pressed on whether they'd spoken about his own campaign, Brock said, "We really didn't talk about the campaign, no. We did not talk about the campaign."
He'd be wise not to. Though a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions has muddied the waters of campaign finance regulations, one thing is perfectly clear: Political candidates who coordinate with so-called "independent expenditure" groups risk triggering more onerous limits on the groups' ability to raise and spend money on their behalf. That is, a super PAC like Vermonters First can take a $100,000 check and use it to cut ads supporting Brock's campaign — but if they coordinate with Brock on such expenditures, they are suddenly bound by Vermont's comparatively strict contribution and spending limits.
"Something would be a coordinated or related expenditure if it's intentionally facilitated, solicited by or approved by a candidate's committee," explains Assistant Attorney General Eve Jacobs-Carnahan.
So if Brock were to ask Brooks to run TV ads on his behalf or give his approval to a political mailing — or even provide Brooks with internal information that could help the super PAC make a decision to spend — Vermonters First would be limited to spending just $6000 on Brock's race. Similarly, the group would jeopardize its ability as an independent expenditure super PAC to raise more than $2000 from a given individual.
"If you're coordinating with a candidate, then we are going to enforce contribution limits that a PAC can receive," Jacobs-Carnahan says.
That might remain the case, thanks to a somewhat bizarre episode that occurred immediately following Brock's Berlin press conference. After the presser wrapped, Brock approached a handful of reporters who were talking amongst themselves and elaborated on his answer concerning his recent contact with Brooks. Inexplicably, he volunteered out of the blue that he had eaten dinner with Brooks the night before.
"The last time I saw Randy Brock was probably a few months ago," he said.
After being told the candidate had just informed a gaggle of reporters that they'd had dinner together the night before, Brooks 'fessed up.
"I did meet with Randy last night," he said. "I happened to catch up with Randy last night."
Brooks hastened to add that their conversation was related neither to the activities of Vermonters First nor to Brock's campaign. Of course, in the eyes of his critics, his credibility was immediately shot to pieces.
"Clearly Vermonters can't believe what Tayt Brooks says, and it's no surprise that his organization's ads are misleading, counter-factual and negative," Vermont Democratic Party chairman Jake Perkinson said in a statement emailed to reporters just two hours after Seven Days' story was posted. "We take any potential collaboration between Randy Brock's campaign and the super PAC Vermonters First very seriously. Tayt Brooks' repeated refusal to discuss the meeting between himself and Randy Brock only casts further question on the potential collusion."
In an interview later Wednesday, Perkinson said that, in light of Brooks' comments, the meeting "certainly warrants a further investigation into whether there was collaboration. I cannot fathom why Tayt wouldn't be more forthcoming about his meeting with Randy Brock if he didn't have something to hide. That raises questions in my mind."
Perkinson stopped short of saying his party planned to file a formal complaint with the attorney general's office, but said the Dems were "not taking that off the table."
Of course, unless and until Vermonters First actually spends money supporting Brock's campaign, Perkinson has no grounds to file a complaint. Conversations and coordination between a candidate and a super PAC are not illegal, Jacobs-Carnahan says. But if they happen and money is then spent, Vermont's stricter campaign finance laws are triggered.
And there's the rub for Randy Brock.
Now that everybody knows he and Brooks have been meeting — and that the super PAC chief has some reason to deny doing so — you can bet your bottom dollar that the Vermont Democratic Party and the Shumlin campaign will go absolutely ape-shit — legally speaking — if Vermonters First goes up with an ad supporting Brock.
So now the ball's in Brooks' court. He's gotta decide whether it's worth the legal bills to cut ads backing Brock. And Lenore Broughton, the super PAC's sugar mama, has to decide whether it's worth investing another $100,000 in the outfit.