Court rules on attorney general’s role in political ad case

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(Host) On Wednesday, a superior judge ordered the Vermont attorney general to get involved in a legal dispute over Republican political ads. The attorney general says he’ll decide soon whether to take enforcement action against the Republican Governors’ Association for alleged violations of state campaign finance law.

VPR’s John Dillon was at the court hearing in Burlington.

(Dillon) The state Democratic Party went to Chittenden County Superior Court to stop what they say is an illegal ad campaign on behalf of Governor Jim Douglas. But Judge Richard Norton ruled that the Democrats – as a private organization – did not have the right to enforce the state’s campaign finance law.

That responsibility, Judge Norton said, rests with the state attorney general.

(Norton) “Accordingly, the court will order pursuant to Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 19 that the attorney general of the state of Vermont be joined as a necessary party for the adjudication of this case.”

(Dillon) Attorney General William Sorrell has taken an unusual position in this case. On the one hand, he says the $304,000 ad campaign is illegal because the Republican Governors’ Association has failed to register as a political action committee in Vermont. On the other hand, he says the state would face a tough legal challenge in trying to stop the ads. That’s because someone from the Secretary of State’s office supposedly told the Republican Governors’ Association that they did not have to register as a political action committee in Vermont.

At the hearing, a Washington lawyer for the RGA was asked to testify about how he got that advice from the Secretary of State. Attorney Glenn Willard said he did not identify himself or the organization he represents.

(Willard) “As I mentioned before from the table, I asked those questions anonymously.”

(Dillon) Attorney General Sorrell says he’ll respond to the court sometime Thursday morning.

(Sorrell) “We did not take the enforcement action because of our view, based on the facts as we understood them, that the state did not have sound legal arguments to make in seeking injunctive relief. The question is, was there a new argument or evidence presented today that would cause us to change that view?”

(Dillon) The Democrats argue that the Republican Governors’ ad campaign is illegal because Vermont law limits donations to political action committees to $2,000. The RGA has gathered many donations from companies and special interests in excess of $2,000. But the RGA says it doesn’t fall under the Vermont law because its ads don’t expressly ask the public to vote for Governor Douglas.

After the court hearing, Democratic Party officials said they’ll ask Vermont TV stations to pull the ads off the air.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.

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