Fattman campaign finance case is not unique

If Sullivan rewrites rules, many others could be affected

REWRITING CAMPAIGN finance rules after the fact can be a very dangerous game. If Michael Sullivan, the outgoing director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF), sets a new standard against state Sen. Ryan Fattman and Worcester County Register of Probate Stephanie Fattman, can we expect Democrats to be treated the same?

Under Sullivan’s potentially new standards, what is fair to be applied against Republicans should also be applied against Democrats.

For example, state Sen. Jamie Eldridge and newly elected state Rep. Dan Sena seem to be close, so close they may have violated Sullivan’s potentially new interpretation of campaign finance rules. Same goes for House Speaker Ron Mariano, Senate President Karen Spilka, Attorney General Maura Healey and many more elected officials. In fact, even former State House politicians, who still have active campaign accounts, such as Brian Dempsey, may have violated this potentially new interpretation of state campaign finance laws.

Massachusetts state campaign finance rules allow candidates to donate $100 a year to other candidates and an “unlimited amount” of money to political party committees. The rules also allow political party committees to make an unlimited amount of in-kind donations to individual candidates.

However, according to the legal case brought by the Fattman family, Sullivan might be seeking to redefine the law during his last few days in office. No decision or action has been taken yet, but Sullivan appears to be exploring whether a candidate committee that donates money to a political party committee, and the political party committee goes on to support a candidate, is circumventing the $100 campaign-to-campaign donation limit. Sullivan may argue the original source of the funds was “disguising the true source” of the donation and he may even argue the amount’s “magnitude” is so high that it would need to be referred to the attorney general’s office.

Under OCPF’s current and longstanding rules, there are no rules about the magnitude of a donation forcing a referral, disposition agreement, or public resolution letter. Just last month, Sullivan resolved a “true source” matter involving $16,200 through a public resolution letter.

Sen. Fattman’s campaign committee made a political donation to the Republican party, and the Republican party supported Stephanie Fattman’s campaign committee. I believe what the Fattmans did is completely legal and commonplace.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge is a member of the Joint Committee on Election Law and right now, based on Sullivan’s potentially new interpretation of campaign finance laws, he may have circumventing the “candidate-to-candidate” $100 limit, otherwise known as the “original source” rule. Senator Eldridge is also member of the Democratic State Committee, which is the board of directors of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

On February 10, 2020, Eldridge endorsed his former aide, Dan Sena, in a special election for state representative. Eldridge’s campaign website highlighted the endorsement and Sena’s campaign website also displayed the endorsement.

Now, follow the money.

On March 24, 2020, Eldridge’s campaign committee donated $5,000 to the Massachusetts Democratic Party, roughly a quarter of the $20,811 the party raised during March and April.

On April 30, the MassDems made a $5,950 expenditure “in support of Dan Sena” at Red Sun Press, a political printing company.

While Eldridge’s campaign committee has a long history of donating large sums of money to the MassDems for his “coordinated campaign” whenever he has faced an opponent, this was the first time his campaign committee donated more than $500 to the MassDems as a “general contribution.” Eldridge clearly didn’t have an opponent in March of 2020.

It’s worth pointing out that House Speaker Ron Mariano’s campaign committee donated $1,000 and former state representative (and now lobbyist) Brian Dempsey’s campaign committee donated $10,000 on March 24 of last year to the MassDems.

Why would these candidate committees donate money to the MassDems if they don’t have an election?

I would assume OCPF’s auditors reviewed this activity and never felt compelled to act on them. As I’ve stated, I believe the Fattman’s followed the rules and I would even argue the same is true with these members of the Democratic Party. However, if Sullivan does take extreme action against the Fattmans during his last couple of days in office, as the Fattman court case suggests he might, a quick review of recent campaign finance data shows there are surely many similar transactions to act on.

If Sullivan applied the potentially new interpretation criteria to Sena, Eldridge, Mariano, and Dempsey, shouldn’t they all be subject to the same treatment as the Fattman family? If Sullivan takes an extreme step and refers the Fattmans to the attorney general’s office for prosecution, will these Democrats be referred to the AG as well?

A closer look at this past November’s general election shows these types of donations are far from unique.

Senate President Karen Spilka’s campaign committee made a $20,000 donation on October 28 and Attorney General Maura Healey’s campaign committee made three separate donations ahead of the general election for a whopping $30,500. Spilka did not have an opponent. Healey wasn’t even up for re-election. Will Michael Sullivan launch an investigation to determine if these donations run afoul of the campaign-to-campaign donation limit?

Sullivan’s last day as director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance is Friday. If he decides to refer the Fattman case to the attorney general’s office, then he has also opened the door for action against Eldridge, Sena, Mariano, Dempsey, Spilka, and likely Healey herself.

Meet the Author

Paul D. Craney

Board Member & Spokesman, Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance
A new director at OCPF is set to take over on Monday. He may have a very busy first day.

Paul Diego Craney is the spokesperson of Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance.