Vt. court imposes $10K penalty in campaign finance suit

Bryan Cohen Dec. 2, 2011, 2:00am

MONTPELIER, Vt. (Legal Newsline) - Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell announced a court decision on Friday ordering an advocacy organization to pay a $10,000 civil penalty for alleged campaign finance law violations.

The Washington unit of the Vermont Superior Court issued the decision on Wednesday ordering that Green Mountain Future pay a civil penalty of $10,000 to resolve the state's campaign finance law enforcement action. GMF is principally funded by the Democratic Governors Association.

GMF allegedly spent more than $500,000 in September and October 2010 on political advertisements attacking gubernatorial candidate Brian Dubie. In making those advertisements, the organization allegedly failed to register with the secretary of state's office, did not file required disclosure reports and omitted proper identification information from its advertisements. The law authorizes penalties of as much as $10,000 for violations of campaign finance laws in Vermont.

The court imposed the penalty for GMF's most critical violation of failing to register because GMF was given fair warning from the secretary of state as to the extent of the law, but it allegedly chose not to hear the warning. The court also found that the penalty would achieve the statutory purpose of deterring future violations by other political committees.

"To the extent other campaigns look to this case for guidance, a $10,000 penalty is a sufficient deterrent to achieve compliance," the court said.

In addition, the court ordered GMF to bring itself into compliance with Vermont's campaign finance laws by registering and filing the requisite reports.

Although it imposed the maximum fine for the failure to register, the court declined to require any penalty for the alleged identification and reporting violations.

"Virtually the same information was filed by GMF with the Internal Revenue Service and posted on the federal website," Judge Geoffrey Crawford said.

Sorrell said that while the court's decision shows seriousness, he questioned the choice not to impose a penalty for the failure to file disclosure reports.

"Judge Crawford's decision reflects the seriousness of GMF's failure to register as a political committee in Vermont," Sorrell said. "The legislature obviously thought all campaign finance law violations were significant when it specified penalties. The court's decision does not seem to send this message and appears to shift the burden to the voters to find campaign finance information elsewhere."

The state filed two campaign finance law enforcement actions in October 2010. In the second action, which was filed against the Republican Governors' Association, the court also found that the RGA violated Vermont's campaign finance laws. The court has not yet imposed a penalty against the RGA in that case.

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