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Rifle Raffle To Proceed In Bennington Despite Legal Concerns

Kevin Hoyt
Republican candidate for House seat, Kevin Hoyt, is hosting a gun raffle and pro-firearms rally in Bennington.

A Republican running for a House seat in Bennington is hoping to raffle two semiautomatic rifles at a pro-firearms rally on Saturday. The flyers he used to advertise the raffles raised concern among state officials this week.

Kevin Hoyt is the only Republican in what's currently a three-way race for Bennington House district 2-1. He's long been a champion of hunting and conservation issues, and he has a hunting TV show on community access television.

"I avoided politics for most of my life on purpose," he said, "but this year there are some big enough issues, I had to run."

Last month, Hoyt created flyers for a pro-firearms rally advertising two raffles for free AR-15 rifles. For the first drawing, Hoyt said, individuals may enter to win if they can prove they are registered to vote in any district in Bennington. This drawing does not include the transfer of money.

The second drawing has caused concern. As described in the flyer, rally-goers could also be entered to win an AR-15 if they donated $5 to Hoyt's political campaign.

In response, Secretary of State Jim Condos issued the following statement. "Based on an opinion we have received from the Attorney General, this event as promoted on Facebook would violate prohibitions in state statute against raffles, or 'games of chance.'"

Vermont statute prohibits games of chance except when the money is being raised by a nonprofit organization.

Charity Clark, chief of staff for the Attorney General, said only that the agency is aware of the issue, is looking into it, and had spoken to Hoyt.

On Friday, Hoyt said he had changed the nature of this second raffle. Now, he said, to be eligible for the rifle drawing, participants must donate $5 to "Future Of Hunting Enterprises," a nonprofit organization he said he operates, which runs hunting and conservation programs. The nonprofit, Hoyt said, would then give some of the raffle revenue to his political campaign. (Hoyt also noted the second raffle prize would be an AR-10, not an AR-15 as advertised on the flyer.)

This arrangement may or may not be legal, depending on what kind of nonprofit organization Hoyt runs. 

Hoyt described "Future Of Hunting Enterprises" as a 501(c)3, or "public charity." If that's the case, the organization is prohibited by IRS rules from contributing directly or indirectly to a political campaign, including Hoyt's.
Hoyt said he believes as long as his nonprofit gives less than 49 percent of the proceeds to his campaign, he won't violate tax laws. But for that to be the true, "Future Of Hunting Enterprises" would have to be a 501(c)4 "social welfare" group, which could move a portion of the raffle's proceeds to the campaign without risking its tax-exempt status.

VPR was not able to find Future Of Hunting Enterprises in the IRS's online database of tax-exempt organizations. Nor does he or the organization turn up in a search of the database maintained by the Vermont Secretary of State's Corporate Division.

In the meantime, Hoyt emphasized, the winners of the rifles will have to visit the Bennington Trading Post before they can pick up their prizes.  "They're going to have to come down and take a federal background check, and of course all Vermont laws and rules apply," he said.

CORRECTION: The broadcast version of this story suggested Bennington Trading Post had donated the rifles. In fact, Hoyt purchased them.

Emily Corwin reported investigative stories for VPR until August 2020. In 2019, Emily was part of a two-newsroom team which revealed that patterns of inadequate care at Vermont's eldercare facilities had led to indignities, injuries, and deaths. The consequent series, "Worse for Care," won a national Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting, and placed second for a 2019 IRE Award. Her work editing VPR's podcast JOLTED, about an averted school shooting, and reporting NHPR's podcast Supervision, about one man's transition home from prison, made her a finalist for a Livingston Award in 2019 and 2020. Emily was also a regular reporter and producer on Brave Little State, helping the podcast earn a National Edward R. Murrow Award for its work in 2020. When she's not working, she enjoys cross country skiing and biking.
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