MONTPELIER >> Sixteen months after Progressive/Democrat Dean Corren lost his bid for lieutenant governor, he and the attorney general's office still are embroiled in a double-barreled court fight over whether Corren violated Vermont's campaign finance law.
The case may turn on whether an email blast urging support for a candidate counts as an electioneering communication and therefore a political contribution, or, because it involves the use of computers and mailing lists, is exempt from the types of contributions that need to be reported to the secretary of state.
The dust-up started in October 2014, when the Vermont Democratic Party sent out an email invitation to 19,000 recipients inviting them to a series of rallies for the party's candidates, including Corren, a former legislator from Burlington.
In March 2015, Attorney General William Sorrell announced that his office was taking a civil action against Corren saying that, because he had taken public financing for his campaign, he was barred from taking other contributions.
The email blast was a contribution, the attorney general's office still argues. It initially sought more than $72,000 from Corren — $20,000 in penalties and $52,000 as the amount of public financing Corren allegedly had left in his campaign account on the day of the violation.
Sorrell said Monday that the Legislature has since changed the law to allow him to recover not the full amount in the candidate's account on the day of the violation, but a significantly smaller amount based on the value of the communication, which is yet to be determined.
After Sorrell went after Corren, Corren sued in federal court saying his free-speech rights were being violated. U.S. District Judge William Sessions III dismissed that suit earlier this month, finding that Vermont's campaign finance laws were constitutionally sound. Meanwhile, the prosecution of Corren in state court continues.
Corren's lawyer, John Franco of Burlington, points to language in the federal judge's order indicating that the state needs to tread carefully.
Franco cited exemptions from the reporting requirements that the Legislature passed in early 2014. Under that law, things that need not be reported as contributions include a candidate's use of a party's computers and voter lists. Both were key ingredients in the email blast, he said.
Megan Shafritz, chief of the civil division in the attorney general's office, said in an email Monday the state campaign finance law traditionally has used a definition of contribution that includes such things as mailings sent for a candidate by someone else.
She said of the email blast, "This is very basic expressed advocacy that has always been found to be a contribution; it's something done to support a candidate."
In his March 9 ruling, the federal judge said Corren can file suit again later if the state courts do not handle the issues correctly. The judge pointed to the importance of the exemptions from the reporting requirements.
"Those exemptions were added, in part, so that political parties could engage in their traditional role of actively supporting candidates," he wrote. If the exemptions are removed, "political parties and their supporters will likely be foreclosed from providing fundamental assistance" to candidates who have taken public funding.