Democrats: Ex-governor's fundraising violated law

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BRATTLEBORO -- Just two days after Gov. Peter Shumlin's campaign was hit with charges of soliciting contributions from lobbyists during the legislative session, the Vermont Democratic Party has filed a similar complaint against the former Republican governor's alleged campaign finance violations.

Democrats filed a complaint Wednesday with the Attorney General's office against the Jim Douglas for Governor campaign committee for allegedly violating the state lobbying law. The Democratic Party said a Douglas letter from March 2, 2009, was sent directly to at least one registered lobbyist during the legislative session, a violation of Vermont's campaign finance laws.

The reaction from Democrats comes after a letter released Monday from the Vermont Republican Party states the gubernatorial campaign of Peter Shumlin solicited contributions from lobbyists during a legislative session.

Jesse Bragg, executive director of the Democratic Party said it was because of the initial complaint filed by the Republicans they were able to discover the Douglas campaign violation.

"We became aware of this document because of all the conversations about their complaint of the Shumlin campaign. So it's not in response to, but it's certainly because of," he said.

Republicans said it was their understanding the issue was resolved.

State law prohibits lawmakers and executive branch officials from soliciting contributions from lobbyists, firms or their employing companies until after the adjournment in the second year of a legislative biennium. The law is in place to prevent politicians from using the legislative session as a political fundraising tool and to prevent lobbyists from using contributions to influence policy.

Secretary of State Jim Condos told the Reformer earlier this week the charges are oftentimes a result of an inadvertent mistake generally made by volunteers.

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In the party's Wednesday letter to Attorney General William Sorrell, Bragg stated the Douglas campaign solicited a political campaign contribution from a registered lobbyist prior to the General Assembly's final adjournment. In the March 2009 letter, the former Republican governor (elected to four consecutive two-year terms) asked for early support payable to the campaign's P.O. Box in Montpelier.

This violation is a very serious matter when considering the nature of the communication, Bragg said.

"While e-mail lists are of an ‘opt-in' nature by the recipient, the piece attached is direct mail," he said. "The list of recipients was intentionally created by the Douglas campaign in order to solicit contributions. This is a clear violation of the law."

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The claims against Shumlin's campaign, according to Bragg, are frivolous in comparison when considering the Shumlin messages were sent via e-mail and not as a solicitation letter.

But GOP Chairwoman Pat McDonald said this is another missed opportunity to review the state's campaign finance law. The issue has instead become political, she said.

"I'm disappointed the Democratic Party perhaps didn't read the entire letter I sent to the Attorney General. It asks to look at the current issue [of campaign finance laws] and any violations that have occurred," she added. "Since these issues have occurred over the years, according to the Secretary of State, it seems to me that it is a law and it applies to everyone regardless of party, regardless of the position being held, whether it's in the administration or the Legislature."

The Republican Party released a letter Monday alleging the Shumlin campaign violated a campaign finance law by requesting contributions through e-mails dated April 6 and 18. The GOP called on Shumlin, a first-term Democrat, to apologize to Vermonters and to verify no gubernatorial staffers were involved in the fundraising.

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Democrats said the campaign is reviewing the list of registered lobbyists and will exclude those individuals from future solicitations during the legislative session.

While the party requested a review of the violation, McDonald said they also asked the Attorney General for advice to improve the current campaign finance law to end future misunderstandings with lobbyists or special interest groups.

"That was my intent, to do two things -- take a look at what's happening here with the Shumlin for Governor (campaign) and how that solicitation was handled because there have been some miscommunications or mismessaging with regard to what happened with this solicitation, but also to take that information and do something very positive with it to come up with recommendations so we don't have these constant discussions over the years," McDonald said. "That was our intent and I'm sorry they missed the other point of that letter."

However, Bragg also accused the Republicans of playing politics. He said McDonald was in the Legislature in 2009 and did not speak up at the time about making the Attorney General and Secretary of State aware of the concerns surrounding the law.

Calls to the Attorney General's office were not returned prior to presstime.

The number listed on the Douglas campaign disclosure form leads back to the Republican headquarters. No representative from the former governor's re-election campaign was available for comment, according to the GOP headquarters.

Chris Garofolo can be reached at cgarofolo@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.


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