Amid Corren Dispute, Sorrell Seeks Change in Public-Financing Law | Off Message

Amid Corren Dispute, Sorrell Seeks Change in Public-Financing Law


Attorney General Bill Sorrell announces an enforcement action against former lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Dean Corren in March. - FILE: PAUL HEINTZ
  • File: Paul Heintz
  • Attorney General Bill Sorrell announces an enforcement action against former lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Dean Corren in March.
After throwing the book at 2014 lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Dean Corren last month, Attorney General Bill Sorrell is trying to change the law he charged Corren with violating.

The Democratic AG approached Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham) last Tuesday in the Statehouse cafeteria and urged her to update regulations governing public financing of state elections. Sorrell specifically requested greater flexibility in assessing penalties against those charged with running afoul of the statute.

"He said, 'Look, we're following the law exactly as it's written. You might want to think about changing the law, because [we're] getting a lot of flack,'" says White, who chairs the Senate Committee on Government Operations.

White says her committee expects to take testimony on the idea Tuesday, though she's hesitant to intervene in a matter currently being litigated.

Corren, the Progressive and Democratic nominee, qualified for $181,000 in public financing last year in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. When he accepted that money, Corren agreed to strict limits on raising additional campaign cash.

In an enforcement action Sorrell filed in Vermont Superior Court three weeks ago, the AG alleged that Corren exceeded those limits by soliciting and accepting a supportive email from the Vermont Democratic Party valued at $255. Sorell sought to fine Corren $10,000 for the alleged solicitation and another $10,000 for failing to report the email as an in-kind contribution.

State law also requires public financing beneficiaries who violate the law to "refund the unspent balance [of the public funds they receive] calculated as of the date of the violation." Corren had roughly $52,000 remaining in his account on the day the VDP sent the email last October. Sorrell is seeking to recoup that money.

The total bill would amount to $72,000. 

In an email Monday, Sorrell said he's hoping White and her fellow legislators will change the law so that he would have discretion in deciding whether to seek the full $52,000 or some smaller amount, depending on the circumstances. Such discretion is afforded those who violate other campaign finance laws but don't accept public funds.

"I asked her to insert the words 'up to' before 'the unexpended', in order to give me or a sentencing judge the same flexibility in determining the amount of required refund of unexpended state grant funds as there is flexibility in determining the amount of up to $10k penalty per violation," Sorrell said in the email.

The attorney general's behind-the-scenes advocacy marks a shift from the bombastic tone he employed during a press conference three weeks ago announcing the case.

"Our legislature, in putting together this statute ... said, 'Listen, if you're going to take the benefit, there are downsides: You have to play by the rules,'" Sorrell said at the press conference. "And if you're not going to play by the rules, the penalties are significant."

At the time, he defended the severity of the fines he sought and characterized the alleged violation as flagrant.

"I could not in good conscience just say, 'Oh, jeez. It was just an email. It's OK. He lost,'" Sorrell said. "This case is significant in that it will set the rules and clear dos and don'ts for publicly financed candidates going forward."

Sorrell's critics have suggested he had plenty of discretion under the current law and did not have to proceed with the civil suit.

White says she's interested in addressing the matter in her committee and, perhaps, in taking a holistic look at the state's public-financing laws. Though the legislature last year doubled the amount of public funds gubernatorial and lieutenant gubernatorial candidates can receive, it has not updated other aspects of the law in decades, White says.

She worries the current penalty for violations is inconsistent, because those who break the rules when they have more money in the bank are penalized at a different rate than those with less.

"It would be easy to game the system," White says. "If I were using public financing, I would make sure I committed all my funds and then violate."

She says she understands Sorrell's desire for more discretion.

"There should be some flexibility for the prosecutor to say: 'What was the intent here? Did you have an intent to violate?'" White says.

In an unrelated press conference last Wednesday, Gov. Peter Shumlin also signaled a desire to revisit the rules. He said that while Sorrell "is doing his job," the $72,000 penalty amounts to "a real deterrent to future candidates seeking public financing."

"So I would urge us to take a look at the statute and ask why we give discretion to non-publicly financed candidates and we don't give that discretion to publicly financed candidates," the governor said.

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