FOR IMMEDIATE RELASE--The Vermont Statehouse is seen through the cover of a maple tree in Montpelier, Vt., Oct. 26, 1999. Built of white granite from nearby hills and topped with a gold-leaf dome, the Statehouse has been called by the National Register of Historic Places "one of the most picturesque statehouses in the country." Built in 1857 it contains many furnishings dating from the mid-19th century, including the original 30 black walnut desks in the Senate. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
MONTPELIER – Come reelection time, incumbent officeholders straddle a thin line between the business of government and the operation of their campaigns.
And from time to time, it can become difficult to distinguish where one world ends and the other begins.
Last Monday, we noticed that Bill Sorrell had taken press releases authored by government employees at his Attorney General’s office and pasted them verbatim onto his campaign website.
The releases, which tout Sorrell’s prosecutorial triumphs to media outlets across the state, even included the government phone numbers of the assistant attorneys general handling the cases.
We asked Sorrell: Is he violating elections rules that prohibit incumbents from using taxpayer-funded government resources for the furtherance of their own political gain?
“No,” Sorrell said. The press releases have been going out for years. He was merely repurposing information that had crossed into “the public domain.”
“They’re news items that we put out initially as a matter of course, and have for years, about the work of the office, and they’re not done for political reasons,” Sorrell said of the releases. “I’m not asking my state employee staff, on state time, to do the work of the campaign. I’ve never done that and wouldn’t do that.”
By before the end of the day, however, the press releases had been pulled from his campaign website at www.billsorrell.com.
We called Secretary of State Jim Condos to find out whether it’s kosher to post state press releases to campaign websites. Condos, after Sorrell, is the state’s top elections referee.
No worries, Condos said. Totally fine. In fact, he does it too.
That’s right. Head over to his campaign website at www.jimcondos.com, check out the “News Room,” and you’ll find a trove of press releases, copied and pasted, word for word, from ones issued by his government office.
They even include the contact number of his executive assistant’s government phone, which visitors to jimcondos.com can apparently call if they want to find out more about the good work of their secretary of state.
Condos said he waits until he gets home after work to paste the releases to his reelection site.
“And unless somebody is using state resources or doing it on state time or from a state computer, I don’t see the problem,” Condos said.
Wasn’t the release created on state time? By a state employee? Working on state computer?
Sure, Condos said.
“But once this stuff is created it’s out there in the public domain to begin with,” he said. “Anybody could use it anyway they wanted, so I really don’t see a problem.”
Wally Roberts, executive director of the Vermont chapter of Common Cause, said there’s probably nothing illegal going on. But he said it underscores the incredible power of incumbency, and helps explain why it’s so tough to oust officeholders.
“They’ve got at their disposal an office full of taxpayer funded staff and equipment, and they can choose to use those resources in ways that give them an incredible advantage over someone who does not have access to those resources,” Roberts says.
For a guy looking to steal a victory in a Democratic primary for attorney general, TJ Donovan sure is locking up a lot of Republican endorsements.
Well, maybe not “a lot.” But two so far, now that Barre City Mayor Tom Lauzon has decided to throw his GOP weight behind Donovan’s bid to unseat incumbent Bill Sorrell.
Rutland City Mayor Chris Louras, also a Republican, gave Donovan the nod earlier this month. In a press release fired off by the Donovan campaign last week, Lauzon said Donovan’s focus on drug abuse make the Chittenden County state’s attorney the right choice to become Vermont’s top prosecutor.
“As a mayor, I witness the harsh impacts of drug abuse and a fractured criminal justice system each day,” Lauzon said. “I would welcome a stronger partnership with the office of the Attorney General to begin making our communities whole again. I know TJ will work hard to build these partnerships, providing an opportunity to make real and lasting progress for the people of Barre and all Vermonters.”
Winooski Mayor Michael O’Brien also endorsed Donovan on Thursday, giving him the backing of mayors in three of the state’s six most populous cities.
Interesting to see Republican mayors backing a Democrat before waiting to see whether a fellow GOPer steps up — Sen. Vince Illuzzi is weighing a run.
Also interesting: though he’s embroiled in a hotly contested Democratic primary that could be decided by the more progressive wing of the party, Donovan sure isn’t running to the left.
Donovan’s campaign issued an addendum to its release celebrating the Lauzon endorsement. In it, Donovan said “crime is not a partisan issue, nor should it be. It’s about partnership with our local leaders to address the number one public safety issue in the state, prescription drugs.”
Crime may or may not be a partisan issue. Figuring out how to stop it often can be. Recall back in 2007, when Lauzon told this paper that “people who are dealing crack and dealing heroin have zero social value and should be put to death.”
“I’m sure everyone will distance themselves from me,” Lauzon said then. “But if anyone tells you we’re winning the war on drugs, they’re lying.”
One might have to search long and hard for a Democrat to join in the call for a death penalty for drug dealers (to be fair, Lauzon also called for the legalization of cannabis).
Anyway, even though he doesn’t think crime-fighting is a partisan issue, Donovan assured voters that he is “deeply committed to the values of the Democratic Party and have demonstrated in my public career how the application of those values to the real world causes of crime lead to positive results.”MORE IN Vermont News
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