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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

AG Fines House Republican PAC for Taking Lobbyist Donations

Posted By on Tue, Oct 4, 2016 at 11:58 PM

click to enlarge Rep. Don Turner - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rep. Don Turner
A political action committee associated with Vermont House Republicans paid a $2,000 fine last month for accepting illegal campaign contributions and failing to register properly.

In a settlement reached September 20 with Attorney General Bill Sorrell, the Vermont House Republicans PAC also agreed to return the improper donations — $1,000 to tobacco giant Altria Client Services and $2,000 to drug maker Pfizer. 

According to Sorrell's office, the committee ran afoul of a 2015 law barring legislative leadership PACs from accepting donations from companies that lobby state government until the legislature adjourns for the biennium. Prior to the law's passage, individual lawmakers were prohibited from taking such contributions during the legislative session, but they often skirted the rules by raising the money through party PACs

Seven Days first reported in March that VHRP appeared to have violated the new law by taking donations from Altria and Pfizer before the legislature's adjournment. Both companies employ Montpelier lobbyists.

Citing Seven Days' report, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group filed a complaint with the AG's office later that month calling for "an appropriate investigation" into the situation and a clarification of the law.

"This is a relatively new law, so we thought it was important to get clarity on its meaning right from the start," VPIRG executive director Paul Burns said Tuesday. "It is, of course, ironic that the Republicans were tripped up by the law so quickly, since it was Republican members of the House who proposed it to begin with."

Burns added, "I'm not sure why it took six months, but this seems like the appropriate resolution to this matter."

Sorrell's office announced the settlement Tuesday after Seven Days enquired about its status. A VHRP campaign finance report filed last Thursday with the Secretary of State's office indicated that the committee had paid a fine and returned the donations last month.

When Seven Days first brought the matter to VHRP's attention in March, treasurer Suzanne Butterfield said that she was "maybe a little naïve when it comes to the law and stuff." A party volunteer who lives in Gaysville, Butterfield said she did not believe her organization qualified as a leadership PAC. Such entities are defined in statute as "a political committee established by or on behalf of a political party caucus within a chamber of the General Assembly."

But both Butterfield and Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton), the House minority leader, admitted at the time that while Butterfield raised money for the PAC on her own, Turner often determined how it was spent.

"I'm counting on that money and I'm hoping she'll direct it as we ask," Turner said at the time. "I guess she could say no, but she hasn't in the past."

In the settlement agreement, Butterfield acknowledged that House Republican leaders "have been involved in the activities" of the PAC since at least February 2013, "including making decisions regarding the content of mailings, filing campaign finance reports and making decisions regarding the spending of [VHRP] funds."

Neither Butterfield nor Turner immediately responded to requests for comment late Tuesday. 

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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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