In this corner, wearing the red trunks, a compulsively litigious Vermont attorney who’s a partner in a D.C.-based law firm with a lengthy rap sheet as a conservative attack dog.
In the far corner, in the blue Spandex, Vermont’e Eternal General, who would have passed his sell-by date years ago if not for the voters’ generous attitude toward incumbency AND a last-ditch bailout from out-of-state donors in 2014.
And whoops, there’s the bell, and the guy with the legal authority wins by TKO.
Such was the result of VTGOP Vice Chair Brady Toensing’s most recent complaint against a liberal politician. Attorney General Bill Sorrell brusquely dismissed his argument that Bernie Sanders’ email blast was a material contribution to the State Senate candidacy of Rep. Chris Pearson, and thus subject to campaign finance limits.
But frankly, neither party covered himself in glory here. Toensing is exhibiting a pattern of politically-motivated legal filings, and Sorrell’s dismissal revealed the weakness of his relentless persecution of Dean Corren.
So, a pox on both their houses. May they spend the afterlife in whatever circle of Hell is reserved for lawyers, shackled together in a vat of fire.
Okay, maybe that’s too harsh. How about this: a featureless Limbo where they debate fine legal points for all eternity?
Yeah, that’ll do.
Toensing’s case, such as it was, argued that Bernie’s email was a tangible thing of great value, and thus exceeded the limits for individual contributions to a candidate.
On the one hand, I can see his point. Bernie’s email list is a precious commodity. By sending a single message, he triggered an avalanche of donations to Pearson and several other state-level candidates across the country.
On the other hand, c’mon now. Bernie didn’t personally contribute anything to Pearson. And is he really constrained from exercising his right of free speech? That’s all he did; he just happened to have a very large and effective soapbox.
It’d be a weird world indeed if, after Citizens United, money constitutes protected free speech, but Bernie’s email (which consists of words) is effectively a financial contribution and thus is NOT free speech.
But it was Bill Sorrell himself who opened the door to this Hall of Mirrors by his unrelenting pursuit of Dean Corren. For those just joining us, Corren qualified for public financing in his bid for lieutenant governor in 2014. During the campaign, the Vermont Democratic Party sent an email blast urging support for the party’s ticket, including Corren.
Sorrell interpreted this as a violation of the state’s public financing law, which prohibits candidates from accepting any additional contributions. The Democrats’ speech was transmogrified into tangible support.
And the way our terrible public-financing law is written, that’s not an outrageous interpretation. It’s a stupid interpretation, though, and Sorrell has dragged it on and on and on for no apparent reason other than an inability to admit a mistake.
In his complaint against Sanders and Pearson, Toensing borrowed Sorrell’s argument. He cited state campaign finance law in defining in-kind contributions as “gifts of ‘anything of value’ given to a candidate for the purpose of influencing an election.”
I don’t know if Toensing really believed his own argument, or if he was trolling the Eternal General. Either way, without Sorrell’s own precedent, Toensing would have had no basis for his complaint.
Sorrell found a way to cut the baby in two, wise man that he is. He claims that the Sanders and Corren cases are different because in the former, Bernie was merely asking for donations; in the latter, the Dems specifically sought votes for Corren.
I’m not a lawyer (thank God), but that’s an astonishingly niggling opinion. The Bernie email instantly gave Pearson an unmatchable financial advantage. The Dems’ email may have possibly influenced an unknown number of party faithful to vote for Corren.
I ask you, which is the most tangible benefit?
To be slightly fair to Sorrell, there’s a problem with the wording of our laws. The public financing system is seemingly designed to entrap candidates, not enable them. And our campaign finance law is a miasma of half-assedness designed to work around the insurmountable fortress of Citizens United.
And the idea of an email being a truly powerful weapon? That’s brand new, and our laws fail to account for it.
Which doesn’t mean I’m letting Sorrell off the hook. His Inspector Javert impersonation in the Corren case has had unintended consequences — that is, beyond the continuing legal and financial peril hanging above Corren’s head for the political equivalent of stealing a loaf of bread. Sorrell could have easily interpreted the spirit of the law instead of fixating on the letter. It would have saved Corren a world of trouble, it would have avoided a costly prosection for no reason, and it would have prevented Brady Toensing from filing his ridiculous complaint.