VPIRG calls for Super PAC Reform

Vermont’s campaign finance system is being corrupted in an unprecedented way by the spending of a single individual this year.

“Vermonters are seeing first-hand the kind of corruption that the Supreme Court has invited with its recent campaign finance decisions,” said Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG. So-called Super PACs are now allowed to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, and they can spend unlimited sums to elect or defeat candidates, as long as they operate independently of candidate campaigns.

“It’s ridiculous to suggest that the obscene levels of spending we’re seeing at the federal level, and now here in Vermont, are not leading to exactly the kind of corruption that the Court has long recognized as being ample justification for limits on contributions to candidates,” said Burns.

Since Buckley v. Valeo, a consistent majority of the Court has found that the danger of quid pro quo corruption – where candidates are inclined to ingratiate themselves to their wealthy backers – is a valid rationale for limiting direct contributions to candidates. Furthermore, the Court has determined that the mere appearance of corruption, caused by unlimited gifts from contributors to candidates, also warrants contribution limits.

“The level of influence being wielded by a single individual in Vermont right now offers more than a whiff of corruption,” said Burns. “It stinks.”

Burlington resident Lenore Broughton contributed nearly $700,000 (as of October 15) to a Super PAC backing Republican candidates, most notably candidate for Treasurer, Wendy Wilton. Since the Super PAC, called Vermonters First, is required to file a report within 24 hours of each mass media expenditure within 30 days of the election, Broughton’s support for candidate Wilton – and others supported by Vermonters First – is a matter of public record.

“Certainly Ms. Wilton is well aware of her patron, and she’s even noted that Ms. Broughton has ‘every right to say good things about me,’” said Burns. “So if Ms. Wilton is elected, does anyone really believe that she will not owe Ms. Broughton a giant debt of gratitude?”

Campaign finance records compiled by FollowtheMonday.Org as of October 15 indicate that Broughton has contributed $683,961 to Vermonters First. This amount is equal to 60.7 percent of all of the individual contributions made to all of the Democratic and Republican statewide candidates in Vermont (not including candidate contributions) as of October 15.

“We can’t stop Ms. Broughton, or any other extremely wealthy individual or corporation from spending money to influence elections, at least not until we change the Constitution or the makeup of the Supreme Court,” noted Burns. “But we can require greater disclosure so that voters know exactly who is behind the blizzard of ads and mailings.”

Vermont’s current law does not require any disclosure of contributions to PACs or candidates between October 15th and Election Day. This means that we will not know the full extent of Broughton’s largesse until after the election. The law also fails to require Super PACs to disclose who is funding the Super PAC in the advertisement itself.

VPIRG will urge legislators to consider the following changes to Vermont law next year:

  • Require Super PACS to disclose all contributions within 24 hours of their receipt during the 30 days preceding a primary or election.
  • Require Super PACS to prominently list their top contributors in all mass media communications.
  • In cases where one contributor is responsible for more than half of the funds raised by a Super PAC, require the Super Pac to have that individual appear in all electronic advertisements, claiming responsibility for the ad.

“Our elections must be more than a game for the super-rich,” said Burns. “If Ms. Broughton wants to throw her considerable financial weight around, she ought not be able to do so while maintaining a cloak of personal anonymity. And that is also true for anyone else fortunate enough to be in her position. At the very least, extreme fat cats should have to take public responsibility for the influence they are attempting to buy.”

VPIRG will work with House and Senate members of the Government Operations Committees in order to see that these proposed disclosure requirements are considered.

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