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Legal Loose Ends 

Fair Game

Bernie Sanders

Published November 17, 2010 at 7:29 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

The ballots and buntings may be stashed away, but the War of Election 2010 is still being waged — in courtrooms.

Several lawsuits wending their way through Vermont’s judicial system could clarify state law regarding the role of out-of-state, independent political organizations, and may place limits on attack advertising during campaigns.

The case that could have the biggest financial impact is Attorney General Bill Sorrell’s investigation into whether Republican Brian Dubie and the Republican Governors Association broke state law by sharing details of Dubie’s internal polls. The polling insight may have helped script RGA ads attacking Shumlin and brought pro-choice women to Dubie’s rescue. State law bans outside groups and campaigns from coordinating activities, or even from “facilitating” each other’s efforts.

After suing Sorrell in federal court to thwart the probe, the Dubie team switched gears and is now cooperating. On Friday, the campaign turned over internal documents to the AG’s office.

Sorrell is also suing two outside groups — Green Mountain Prosperity (funded by the RGA) and Green Mountain Future (funded by the Democratic Governors Association) — claiming they should have filed as in-state political-action committees and adhered to Vermont’s more stringent disclosure requirements regarding donors and expenditures.

“I think it was pretty clear that both were trying to influence the outcome of the election and, as such, should have filed as in-state PACs,” said Sorrell.

Green Mountain Future focused its ad buys on highlighting Dubie’s support for keeping Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant open beyond 2012.

“We simply disagree with the attorney general about what set of papers we had to file,” said Drew Hudson, a GMF spokesman. GMF is registered as a section 527 group with the Internal Revenue Service and may continue to play a role here if Entergy fights to extend VY’s operating license.

Finances are also at the center of a legal battle between two former campaign managers and Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Len Britton. Both managers claim they are owed back wages.

On Friday, Britton’s first campaign manager, Dan Riley, was awarded a lien against the candidate’s campaign account for $17,000 plus legal fees; a trial will determine if Britton will have to pay even more.

Second Britton campaign manager Jeff Bartley is allegedly owed more than $30,000. At a separate court hearing Friday, Bartley agreed to enter mediation before filing a lawsuit.

“Given [that] the campaign has basically no money left and is about $80,000 in debt, I may not see anything unless Len wrote some of what I’m owed out of his personal account,” said Bartley.

Britton, who ran a clean and strong campaign against a popular incumbent, is rumored to be eyeing a run for governor in 2012; making good on his 2010 debts would certainly help his cause.

In addition to being a high-spending affair, Election 2010 was marred by a singularly nasty tone in the gubernatorial race, thanks to the man once thought to be the “nicest guy in Vermont politics” — Brian Dubie.

One of Dubie’s chief accusations against rival Peter Shumlin concerned the Democrat’s alleged untrustworthiness; Dubie’s camp even created a website with the URL

One of the alleged “ethical lapses” involved $8000 contributed to the Shumlin campaign by David Blittersdorf, founder of NRG Systems and AllEarth Renewables. Dubie questioned whether Blittersdorf’s donation helped secure $4.3 million in renewable-energy tax credits for AllEarth Renewables.

Neither Dubie nor his campaign manager, Corry Bliss, offered proof of any pay-to-play scheme, but that didn’t stop them from dragging Blittersdorf through the mud. Ironically, Dubie’s “10-point jobs plan” praised Blittersdorf’s skills as an entrepreneur and exemplary employer.

Blittersdorf personally asked Dubie to remove the defamatory allegations from the website. When that didn’t happen, his lawyer, Ritchie Berger, sent a polite but firm cease-and-desist letter. In response, Dubie’s campaign posted Berger’s letter on its website and shared it with the media.

If they were hoping that would scare off Berger and Blittersdorf, they miscalculated. Big time.

“The postelection removal of that material does not excuse the fact that it was published when it should not have been, or immunize those who wrote it,” Berger told “Fair Game.” “Those statements remain in the public record and on news sites.”

Maybe future campaigns will fact-check their own attacks, eh? What a concept.

Auditor Tom Salmon was the subject of a late-game attack by the political ally of an opponent, who successfully sued the state to make it release a roadside video depicting Salmon’s DUI arrest. Sorrell is concerned too much of the video was made public and may still appeal.

Though election day is now history, Sorrell said it’s important to see these cases to completion.

“If these cases were to go away as soon as the election was over,” he said, “we would be opening the door in the future to Vermont becoming the Wild West.”

Cashing Out

The big news from Gov.-elect Peter Shumlin was his pick for secretary of administration: current — and recently reelected — Treasurer Jeb Spaulding.

The appointment means, of course, that Shumlin will get to pick a new treasurer in mid-January, after Spaulding swears in and promptly resigns.

The last treasurer appointed by a governor was Madelyn Davidson in 1968, according to the Vermont State Archives. The last time a gov appointed anyone to a vacant statewide office was 1997. Gov. Howard Dean appointed Democrat Bill Sorrell attorney general after Jeff Amestoy resigned to become chief justice of the Vermont Supreme Court.

Per the Vermont Constitution, Shumlin can appoint whomever he chooses to replace Spaulding, a fellow Democrat. State law also allows him to take recommendations from other members of his party.

One person not interested in becoming treasurer is Sen. Susan Bartlett (D-Lamoille). “Let’s put that rumor to rest right now,” she told “Fair Game.”

Bartlett is taking on the role of Shumlin’s “special assistant” and will ride herd on deploying broadband, curbing corrections spending and wringing efficiency from state government.

Shumlin appointed his campaign manager and former Senate aide Alex MacLean as secretary of civil and military affairs. In this role, MacLean will oversee communications and policy and act as a legislative liaison.

Shumlin’s chief of staff will be Bill Lofy, a strategist from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a former staffer for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN).

Shumlin’s legal counsel will be Beth Robinson, who led the fight for both civil unions and same-sex marriage and is a lawyer at Langrock Sperry & Wool.

Additional appointments could be made before Thanksgiving, Shumlin said.

Word is, soon-to-be former Secretary of State Deb Markowitz is in line for a job, though it’s still unclear what that might be: secretary of labor or commerce, perhaps?

Shumlin is putting in place a fiscally centrist Democratic administration — as did Howard Dean. So, all you liberals waiting to hear what role Sen. Doug Racine (D-Chittenden) will play in a Shumlin administration, don’t hold your breath.

Remember how Pres. Barack Obama rewarded progressives and liberals for their support?

Me, too.

Moving on Up

Vermont’s soon-to-be former Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie has put his Essex Junction home up for sale and plans to relocate to a house on his family’s property in Fairfield, where he and his brother operate a maple-sugaring business.

“Sugarwoods in Fairfield calls,” said Dubie via email.

Dubie told “Fair Game” the move had been part of his long-range plan, but was put on hold during his yearlong run for governor. With all the kids in college, who needs a four-bedroom empty nest?

Some politicos believe Dubie could reinvent himself later as a state senator. That scenario worked for Gov.-elect Shumlin, who lost the race for lite gov to Dubie in 2002. He returned to the Senate in 2006 and was elected president pro tem. U.S. Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) lost the race for governor in 1990 and disappeared from elective office until 2002, when he was appointed to the Vermont Senate. In 2006, Welch won his seat in Congress.

When it comes to Dubie’s future, reentering politics seems at least as likely as growing a beard and sitting on the porch with a dog-eared copy of Walden or Living the Good Life.

Nothing Like the Real Thing

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) advises Pres. Barack Obama and Democrats to reinvigorate their base of support this way: Push progressive legislation that protects the middle class and do not kowtow to the Right.

Last week, Sanders blasted proposals to raise the age when retirees can become eligible for Social Security benefits, and expressed dismay at Obama’s signal that Bush-era tax cuts may be allowed to remain in place for the top 1 percent of U.S. wage earners, adding $700 billion to the deficit.

“If you speak to the needs of average Americans and are prepared to fight for them and take on the big-monied interests, this shows that people are prepared to support you,” said Sanders, after noting that House progressives were largely reelected to Congress, while conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats took a “shellacking.”

“If Democrats, however, try to sound like Republicans,” Sanders added, “then people will go with the real thing every time.”

Funny, that.

Media Notes

Gannett has announced another round of company-wide layoffs affecting seven more jobs at the Burlington Free Press, according to the independent Gannett Blog. More unpaid furloughs are in the offing for early 2011.

Only one newsroom layoff so far — reporter Hannah Crowley. Luckily, she had already lined up a new gig out of state. New publisher Jim Fogler is mum on whether the other six cuts will be layoffs, or if the daily will just let unfilled positions stay that way.

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.


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