Attorney General Bill Sorrell has filed a lawsuit alleging that a candidate who used public money to run for lieutenant governor last year violated campaign financing laws.
Sorrell says Progressive Democrat Dean Corren illegally sought help from the Democratic party.
The crux of Sorrell's complaint is that Corren asked the Democrats to send out an email of support to 19,000 people on the party's list. That email amounts to a contribution that Sorrell says Corren was not allowed to solicit under the rules governing publicly financed campaigns. Sorrell said Corren also failed to disclose the email assistance.
“It (the email) qualifies as a contribution and must be reported by the Corren campaign as well as the Democratic party,” Sorrell said.
Corren received about $180,000 in public money to run for lieutenant governor -- about $32,000 for the primary, and $150,000 for the general election. He lost to Lt. Gov. Phil Scott in November.
Sorrell said that as part of the deal for getting taxpayer support for his campaign, Corren agreed not to solicit contributions from other sources.
"The public financing system that we have in Vermont presents huge benefits to candidates who want to take advantage of that,” Sorrell added. “But along with those benefits are the responsibilities or obligations to play by the rules the Legislature sets."
The attorney general said he settled a similar complaint against the Democratic party. His lawsuit against Corren seeks $72,000 in penalties – $52,000 for the money he had left in his campaign fund at the time the email was sent, and $10,000 each for the two alleged violations.
Corren – through his lawyer John Franco – strongly disputes the allegations. Franco said the email in question invited supporters to attend a rally attended by Gov. Peter Shumlin, Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as Democratic candidates for the House and Senate. Franco said state campaign finance law allows the party to pay for campaign events at which three or more candidates attend.
“This is clearly exempted activity,” he said.
Franco said the email was “vetted legally” by both the Democrat's lawyer and Corren’s counsel. “They wanted to avoid exactly this,” he said.
Before Sorrell sued Corren, the former candidate sued Sorrell in federal court. That suit seeks a ruling that the party's email was not a contribution, and that Sorrell's suit demands excessive punishment.
Franco said if Sorrell’s suit is successful, candidates will be discouraged from seeking public financing.
“No other candidate should be subject to this kind of bullying that Dean has been put through,” he said. “They would not go through public financing. They would be out of their mind.”