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The Brattleboro Reformer - Pollina Donors Win Court Case

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Location: Montpelier, VT

The Brattleboro Reformer - Pollina Donors Win Court Case

Dave Gram

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina did not violate Vermont's campaign finance law by accepting contributions larger than $1,000 from several donors.

Judge William Sessions issued a permanent injunction blocking the state from taking enforcement action against Pollina.

Pollina was not a party to the litigation; instead, it was brought by five donors, each of whom gave him more $1,000.

Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz made comments during the summer, and Attorney General William Sorrell's office argued in Sessions' court, that Pollina had violated a limit of $1,000 per election from each donor.

Most candidates can collect $2,000 per election cycle from a single donor, because they face both a primary and a general election campaign.

Pollina dropped his Progressive Party affiliation in late July to run as an independent. Markowitz' and Sorrell's offices told him that because he no longer faced a primary, his contributions were capped at $1,000 per donor, and that he would have to return money to those who gave more.

Sessions ruled that because he was a primary candidate while still running as a Progressive, Pollina was eligible to collect donations for that part of the race, even though he ended up dropping out of it.

He also agreed with an argument raised by Burlington lawyer John Franco, who represented Pollina's donors: Franco maintained that the state did not police campaign contributions to be sure those made to candidates were earmarked for the primary versus the general election.

"The state contends that $1000.00 of such a contribution will go towards expenses or debt incurred for the primary election, but as a practical matter, this has no meaning," the judge wrote. "Candidates are not required to account for how contributions received after the primary election are spent, so the state cannot monitor whether a $2000.00 contribution was used for the general election, or whether $1000.00 of that contribution was applied to primary election expenses."

Another issue in the case was whether Vermont had an effective campaign finance currently or not. State officials have argued that since a 1997 campaign finance reform law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006, a legal doctrine called "revival" meant that a prior version of the law came back into effect.

Sorrell said he "breathed a sigh of relief" that Sessions appeared to accept that stance, while not ruling on it definitively.

Sessions said on this score: "While Vermont has not explicitly adopted this legal doctrine, the weight of authority favors its application here. Moreover, if the prior statute is not revived, campaign contribution limits would not exist. Thus, for purposes of this litigation the applicable law is the 1981 statute that limits individual contributions to $1000.00 for any election."

Sorrell said, "We're in a much better situation than if the judge had ruled there was no revival and we'd have no campaign finance rules."

Pollina hailed the ruling. "We're pleased that the judge agreed with us and pointed out that the secretary of state's action made no sense," he said in a statement released by his campaign.

"We were singled out for a clearly partisan attack," Pollina added. "At a time when the economy is falling apart and people are out of work, we stuck with the real issues and I'm glad Vermonters stuck with us. We gained major endorsements and went up in the polls, proving again that Vermonters don't fall for negative politics."

The decision in the case produced some verbal brickbats between Franco on one side and Markowitz and Sorrell on the other. Franco said the state's threatened enforcement action against Pollina was a "political mugging," by Sorrell and Markowitz, adding that Wednesday's ruling "makes it a very bad day for Deb Markowitz, and she deserves it."

Markowitz replied later: "I thought it was a terrific day for Deb Markowitz. I frankly don't care whether Anthony Pollina gets a $1,000 campaign contribution or a $2,000 contribution. What I care about is that people follow the law."

Sorrell said, "John Franco ought to be ashamed of himself. We litigated this case in court and not in the media. ... John's just trying to get his name in the paper."

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