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Vermont Judge Rules Against Republican Governors Association

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For the second time this year, a Vermont judge has ruled against an out-of-state political action committee — saying the PAC's spending in the 2010 election violated state law.

Today, Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Crawford ruled that political ads run by the Republican Governors Association last year violated the state's campaign finance laws because the group failed to register with the Secretary of State's office and failed to adhere to Vermont's campaign contribution limits.

In July, Crawford ruled that a Democratic Governors Association PAC — Green Mountain Future — violated state law by running ads that attacked GOP candidate Brian Dubie, and failed to register with the Vermont Secretary of State's Office. The group argued that it was legally set up as a so-called 527 group and therefore didn't need to register with the state. Crawford rejected that argument. (Read both judicial decisions below.*)

The DGA-financed group spent more than $500,000 attacking Dubie. The RGA and an affiliated committee shelled out a cool $900,000 in the ad wars.

Similarly, Crawford ruled that the RGA ran two political advertisements from August to October 2010, one promoting candidate Brian Dubie and the other attacking Democratic candidate Peter Shumlin, but did not register with the Secretary of State’s Office or file required disclosure reports. The judge also found that the RGA accepted contributions in excess of $2,000, in violation of Vermont’s limit on contributions to political committees. The RGA ran its own advertisements plus others under its Vermont political action committee, Green Mountain Prosperity PAC. The RGA’s total spending on the Vermont gubernatorial race in 2010, both directly and through that PAC, was more than $900,000.

Crawford rejected the RGA’s argument that national organizations such as itself cannot be regulated under Vermont’s campaign finance law. It ruled that if a PAC raises and spends more than $500 to support or oppose a candidate for Vermont office, it must follow Vermont law, regardless of whether it is also involved in political work in other states.

"The RGA's perceived problem is one of its own creation," Crawford wrote in his ruling. "It set up a Vermont PAC which apparently was prepared to operate within the state in complete compliance with the Vermont statute—the RGA nevertheless chose not to use it for these advertisements. Alternatively, it could limit its advertising to genuine issue ads which are constitutionally exempt from regulation. It did neither.

"Instead, the record shows that it attempted to skirt state regulation by running advertisements which functioned as campaign ads but lacked explicit language such as 'Vote for Lt. Governor Dubie,'" Crawford went on. "This strategy was employed by both national governors' associations and carried the risk as we have seen that both associations would be found in violation."

Attorney General Bill Sorrell said he was pleased with Crawford's latest decision. The judge has not yet issued fines or penalties in either case.

“We are pleased with Judge Crawford’s decisions,” said Sorrell. “This office will continue to evenhandedly enforce Vermont’s campaign finance laws.”

Sorrell filed suit against both parties last fall.

A third legal loose end — whether Dubie's campaign illegally shared polling information with the RGA — is still pending, Sorrell told Seven Days.

Read the full RGA decision: Green Mountain Prosperity Decision on Cross Motions for Summary Judgment

Read the full DGA decision: Green Mountain Future Decision on Cross Motions for Summary Judgment

* This post has been updated with links to Judge Geoffrey Crawford's decisions.

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