Former governor Howard Dean slammed attorney general candidate T.J. Donovan Wednesday for insinuating that opponent Bill Sorrell's campaign illegally coordinated an ad campaign with an independent super PAC.
During a brutally negative Burlington Free Press debate Tuesday, Donovan — the Chittenden County state's attorney — said he had heard "numerous complaints" of such coordination, but declined to provide any evidence. He did issue a stark warning to Sorrell, saying the incumbent attorney general "should be very careful about any alleged coordination that may have occurred" between Sorrell's campaign and the Committee for Justice and Fairness, noting that Sorrell's office has sought to prosecute other political candidates for similar crimes.
Funded principally by the Democratic Attorneys General Association, the Committee for Justice and Fairness super PAC has spent at least $184,000 on television ads and direct mail supporting Sorrell's reelection fight.
Asked Wednesday to elaborate on his boss' charge, Donovan campaign manager Ryan Emerson admitted the campaign has "no evidence to suggest that's true," but implied that Dean may have served as an "intermediary" between Sorrell's campaign and the super PAC. Dean, who appointed Sorrell to the attorney general post in 1997 and remains his highest-profile supporter, narrated the television ad produced by the Committee for Justice and Fairness.
"What we do know is two things. Number one, Howard Dean has been very active in [Sorrell's] campaign, to the point where I think it's fair to say he's a campaign consultant," Emerson said. "Number two, he's the person who was doing the voiceover for the ad, so clearly he was involved with the Committee for Justice and Fairness in creating the ad."
While super PACs are free to spend as much as they like on electioneering efforts supporting or opposing candidates, they are barred from directly coordinating with campaigns.
Asked whether Donovan was specifically referring to Dean in his comments at the Free Press debate, Emerson said, "He may or may not have been referring to Howard Dean." Asked if the Donovan campaign was accusing Dean of breaking the law, Emerson said, "No comment."
Reached by phone from Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Dean vociferously denied facilitating any illegal coordination between the two entities. He said that after the super PAC approached him about recording a voiceover, the former governor offered suggestions about "where their money should go as far as television ads and mailers" — but did not share that information with the Sorrell campaign.
"I know the campaign laws," Dean said. "At no time have I ever discussed the ads, the mailers with anybody in the campaign or Bill Sorrell."
The former governor expressed outrage about the Donovan campaign's remarks.
"That's really unfortunate that T.J. would stoop to that level. There is absolutely no truth to that whatsoever. I have never discussed anything like that with Bill Sorrell," Dean said. "This is why I don't support T.J. and why I think he's doing harm to his future. I think this is not the way to run a campaign in Vermont."
Contrary to Emerson's assertion that Dean serves as a de facto "campaign consultant" to the Sorrell campaign, Dean said his only role has been to appear at a handful of fundraisers and a press conference highlighting his endorsement of Sorrell.
"I've had almost no discussions with him about how to run his campaign," Dean said.
Sorrell said much the same in an interview Wednesday, arguing that, "The role [Dean] has been playing as it relates to my campaign has been public." Sorrell said that aside from the fundraisers, the press conference and an appearance on WVMT-AM's "Charlie + Ernie + Lisa Show," "I don't think I've talked with him on the phone or anything in between any of those."
He said the only piece of campaign advice or strategy Dean provided came when the two got together at Handy's Lunch in Burlington before the AG launched his reelection bid.
"He said you just gotta fight and hold your own in Chittenden County and win elsewhere. And that was it," Sorrell recalled. "That's the sum total of strategizing, if that constitutes strategizing. I agree with him, so it was reinforcement, not value added."
Dana Bykowski Ju, a representative of the Committee for Justice and Fairness, did not return calls for comment Wednesday.
Photo of Dean and Sorrell by Paul Heintz