Updated at 7:48 p.m. September 6, 2016, with a statement from Brady Toensing.
Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell said Tuesday that an email Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) presidential campaign sent to support Rep. Chris Pearson’s (P-Burlington) state Senate race did not violate state campaign finance laws.
In the May email to his supporters, Sanders urged recipients to contribute to eight like-minded state legislative candidates around the country, including Pearson, who worked for Sanders in the late 1990s.
Pearson is running as a Progressive/Democrat for one of Chittenden County’s six seats in the state Senate.
“Chris is a good friend of working people and of mine,” Sanders said in the email.
Brady Toensing, a Charlotte attorney and Vermont Republican Party vice chair, filed a complaint with Sorrell in August, arguing that the email represented an in-kind contribution to Pearson’s campaign. Such contributions are subject to disclosure requirements and a $1,500 limit per person.
Toensing said that of the $90,000 Pearson raised from his campaign, $80,000 could be tied to Sanders’ email.
In a prepared statement, Sorrell said the email could be interpreted as an appeal to raise money for Pearson, and not to vote for him. Therefore, Sorrell said, it was legal.
“The email was not express advocacy for the election of Pearson,” Sorrell said. “As a result, the email does not meet the definition of the type of speech regulated by the Vermont statute, particularly given the First Amendment protections for certain types of advocacy in campaigns.”
In a statement, Toensing called Sorrell’s decision “improper,” and warned it would create loopholes for unregulated campaign expenditures.
“There can be no serious argument that the purpose of Senator Sanders’ fundraising pitch did not directly support Representative Pearson’s candidacy,” Toensing said. “The use of a 5 million-plus email list to raise a record amount of money is a contribution to Representative Pearson no matter how you slice it. How can a scheme that results in more than $80,000 flooding into Pearson’s bank account be anything other than a contribution?”