VPIRG executive director Paul Burns testifies last year in front of the Senate Committee on Government Operations.
A liberal advocacy organization filed a complaint last week with the Vermont Attorney General's Office alleging that a Republican political action committee violated a new law cracking down on influence-peddling.
In a letter to Attorney General Bill Sorrell, Vermont Public Interest Research Group executive director Paul Burns called for "an appropriate investigation and determination from your office in order to help clarify the meaning of the law moving forward."
Citing a recent Seven Days story, Burns questioned whether the Vermont House Republican PAC failed to register as a "leadership PAC" — defined in statute as "a political committee established by or on behalf of a political party caucus within a chamber of the General Assembly." Such PACs are prohibited under a new law from accepting contributions from lobbyists and the companies that employ them until the legislature adjourns at the end of a two-year biennium.
The Vermont House Republican PAC accepted $1,000 late last year from the cigarette company Altria Client Services and $2,000 from the drug company Pfizer, both of which employ registered Vermont lobbyists.
Operated by party activist Suzanne Butterfield, the VHRP is nominally distinct from the Vermont House Republican caucus. But Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton), the minority leader, conceded to Seven Days two weeks ago that he occasionally directs the PAC's spending.
Whether that makes the organization a leadership PAC isn't quite clear, state elections director Will Senning said at the time. Because the law is untested, he added, "there is no precedent out there to rely on in Vermont." An opinion by the Attorney General's Office responding to a complaint would "shed a lot of light," Senning said.
That's what Burns is hoping to elicit.
"It's a new law, and to the extent that new laws need some type of enforcement action, occasionally, to determine their precise meaning, that's what we're trying to have happen in this case," the VPIRG chief said.
Reached Friday, Turner said he would "cooperate fully" with any investigation. But, he added, "I don't think I violated the law."
Butterfield, who previously said she did not believe she needed to register VHRP as a leadership PAC, did not respond to a request for comment.
Sorrell's office provided a copy of the VPIRG complaint upon request, but Assistant Attorney General Megan Shafritz would not say whether the AG had launched an investigation or if it planned to do so.
While Burns said it "seems pretty clear that there has been an apparent violation of the new law," he said he did not believe the GOP intentionally acted in bad faith.
"I think it's probably a case where this is a new law and the person who was running the PAC was not sufficiently versed in what the law of the land is," he said. "So I'm not asking anyone to throw the book at the Republicans for accepting these contributions."