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Friday, March 18, 2016

Republican PAC Raises Lobbyist Money, Despite New Ban

Posted By on Fri, Mar 18, 2016 at 2:53 PM

click to enlarge Rep. Don Turner - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rep. Don Turner
A political action committee that bankrolls House Republican electoral activities raised money last year from corporations that lobby the state, in apparent violation of a new law banning the practice.

According to a recent campaign finance filing, the cigarette company Altria donated $1,000 to the Vermont House Republican PAC last November. The next month, the drug company Pfizer contributed $2,000. Both companies employ registered lobbyists.

Individual Vermont lawmakers have long been prohibited from raising money from lobbyists and the companies that employ them — at least, until the legislature adjourns for the biennium. For years, Republicans and Democrats alike skirted that prohibition by raising lobbyist cash through “leadership PACs” controlled by top legislators. After Seven Days documented a series of mid-session lobbyist fundraisers hosted by such PACs, the legislature voted last May to close the loophole by subjecting them to the same limitations.

But even though it was House Republicans who proposed the change in law, the party activist who administers their PAC appears to be out of compliance with it.

“I’m maybe a little naïve when it comes to the law and stuff,” said Suzanne Butterfield, who runs PACs benefiting both House and Senate Republicans. “I’m just somebody who wants to help.”

The confusion stems from the fact that Butterfield, not top Republican leaders, administers the House PAC and organizes its fundraisers. She said she thought that exempted her from registering as a leadership PAC and having to comply with the donation restrictions. But both she and Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton), the minority leader, admitted that Turner helps decide how the PAC’s money is spent.

“I’m counting on that money and I’m hoping she’ll direct it as we ask,” said Turner, who voted to close the loophole. “I guess she could say no, but she hasn’t in the past.”

Just last week, Turner asked Butterfield to cut a $1,400 check from the Vermont House Republican PAC treasury to help pay for a fundraising letter benefiting an organization he does fully control, the Common Sense Leadership PAC.

According to the recently enacted statute, a leadership PAC is “a political committee established by or on behalf of a political party caucus within a chamber of the General Assembly.”

When a reporter read the statute to Turner, he said that Butterfield’s organization probably should register as a leadership PAC. “From that definition, I would say I definitely have input and I can ask for money, so I guess, yeah,” he said.

But according to Will Senning, director of elections in the Secretary of State’s Office, there is no precedent upon which to base such a determination.

“I can’t point to past instances that may shed light on a current situation, because there are none,” he said. “I think this also leaves this law ripe for further interpretation. If a complaint were to be filed with the Attorney General’s Office, their conclusion about a particular situation will shed a lot of light going forward and will equip me with an example I can point to for entities looking for guidance in the future.”

The AG’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Vermont Democratic Party spokeswoman Christina Amestoy said she thinks the situation is perfectly clear.

“From my understanding of the definitions, they seem to be illegally collecting lobbyist-employer contributions for their own leadership PAC,” she said.

Amestoy noted that just last week, Reps. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) and Patti Komline (R-Dorset) criticized House Democratic leaders for skirting the new law by merging their own leadership PAC into the VDP apparatus. Wright and Komline sponsored the amendment that closed the loophole. Neither is a member of the Republican leadership.

“This just seems like another example of hypocrisy from the Vermont Republican Party,” Amestoy said.

Butterfield’s other PAC, the Green Mountain Republican Senate Committee, also accepted contributions from Altria and Pfizer after the law’s passage. But even though that PAC supports Republican Senate candidates, there appears to be more of a firewall between Butterfield and Senate leadership.

“There is no discussion between me and that entity,” said Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), the Senate minority leader. “I don’t have anything to do with what it does.”

Butterfield said the same, adding that Benning had asked for “not a cent” from the PAC. “They don’t direct me on sending money to this, that and the other one,” she said.

Apparently, it doesn’t take much to get a campaign contribution from Altria and Pfizer.

“I didn’t even ask for it. They just sent it,” Butterfield said. “They just knew that those PACs exist and thought the money would ultimately reach the candidates.”

Monsanto gave $500 to the Senate PAC and $1,000 to the House PAC, but it does not directly employ a lobbyist in Vermont.

Turner said he had not been aware of the lobbyist-employer contributions and does not believe he violated the law, but he still plans to make some changes. He said that in the future, he may abstain from directing how the Vermont House Republican PAC spends its money — and he may ask Butterfield to change the organization’s name, to avoid confusion about its role.

“I definitely supported the law. I believe in the law. And I definitely don’t want to be violating the law,” he said. “So, moving forward, I’m definitely going to be much more aware.”

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About The Author

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz

Paul Heintz is Seven Days' political editor. He writes the weekly column, "Fair Game."


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