Burlington Democrats, State Party Admit to Campaign Finance Violations | Off Message

Burlington Democrats, State Party Admit to Campaign Finance Violations


Burlington Democratic Party chair Sam Donnelly - FILE: LUKE AWTRY
  • File: Luke Awtry
  • Burlington Democratic Party chair Sam Donnelly
The Vermont Democratic Party and the Burlington Democratic Committee will pay the state a $2,750 fine for violating campaign finance laws related to Burlington City Council elections last March.

The political parties were required to report campaign spending for the Town Meeting Day races on February 2 and 22 and March 17, but neither organization did, according to a settlement the Vermont Attorney General's Office announced late last week.

The Vermont Progressive Party filed a complaint with the AG's office in April after unsuccessfully trying to resolve the issue directly with the city committee, according to Progressive Party executive director Josh Wronski.

Progs took notice when the state Democrats announced they had hired a full-time staffer to boost the party's chances in the local elections — an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful — and started circulating a variety of campaign mailers that couldn't be traced back to campaign reports.

"This wasn't a political stunt," Wronski said, adding, "We've maintained the whole time that this is really about transparency. People have the right to know who's funding the flyers and the canvassers and the phone-bankers that are coming into their neighborhood."

The Attorney General's Office notified the parties of the complaint in May, but the city committee didn't properly file its reports for another month; the state party finally filed them online on September 25. Officials from both organizations told Seven Days that it took time to submit the correct reports, which had to be done by hand instead of using the typical electronic filing system.

Victoria Moon, press secretary for the Vermont Democrats, attributed the party's error to a "clerical mistake." She said information about campaign spending for city council candidates was included in other, required disclosure forms.

"We truly regret the unintentional error," Moon said. "We worked very willingly and transparently with the attorney general's office to make sure that this was handled correctly and as simply as possible."

Sam Donnelly, chair of the Burlington Democrats, said he had confused the campaign filing deadlines for local elections with those for the general election. He uploaded the local reports to the Vermont Secretary of State's campaign finance system on March 15 — when the first general election reports were due — forgetting that local election reports had been due twice in February.

"This was an unintentional error. No one at the party ... intended to hide anything or mislead anyone who might be interested in looking at our campaign finance reports," Donnelly said. "It's not a mistake I'm going to make again."

Donnelly is also the campaign manager for Attorney General T.J. Donovan's 2020 reelection bid. The party chair declined to comment on his employment.
Attorney General T.J. Donovan - FILE: TAYLOR DOBBS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Taylor Dobbs ©️ Seven Days
  • Attorney General T.J. Donovan
In an emailed statement Monday, staff at Donovan's office said the AG "was walled off from this matter from the onset." The office assigned Sarah London, the chief assistant attorney general, to supervise the investigation into Donnelly — and Donovan's own party — "to avoid any appearance of a conflict," according to the statement.

Campaign finance violations can lead to fines of up to $10,000 per infraction. When calculating a penalty, the attorney general's office said it weighs the offending party's "good or bad faith" and ability to pay with the injury to the public. The state party will cover $2,000 of the fine, while the city committee will pay the remainder, according to Moon. The balance is due in late November.

Wronski was "pleasantly surprised" that the Democrats were fined for what he considers a "pretty egregious violation" of the law. He said he's glad the matter became public before the 2021 Burlington mayoral election in March, when "there's going to be a lot more money spent."

"We wanted to make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen then," Wronski said.

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