Fattman case is no gray area of the law

Probe raises the issue of a disguised contribution

In an April 2 column in CommonWealth, Paul Craney makes two points, one personal and the other legal, in regards to a recent action that Sen. Ryan Fattman, his wife, and others brought in Superior Court against Michael Sullivan, the director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance’s (OCPF).

On the personal side, Craney, who lifts quotations from filings by the plaintiffs’ attorney, characterizes Sullivan as a rather lawless bureaucrat. Allegedly, Sullivan stated that he doesn’t “care about the law,” was targeting” the plaintiffs, felt” like the plaintiffs were in violation of the law, stated his displeasure with lawyers, and was seeking a “trophy” on his way out after 27 years in office.  (Similar comments were made in a separate op-ed by six former chairs of the Massachusetts Republican Party.)

I met Mike Sullivan when he was first appointed as the OCPF director in 1994. At the time I was OCPF’s general counsel and continued to serve in that position until I left the agency about six years later. Since then I’ve had many interactions with OCPF and can say that the characterization presented does not comport with the person that I and many others have known and worked with – and against – for many years.

Anyone who has known Sullivan has met a dedicated public servant committed to educating everyone about the campaign finance law and regulations and judiciously investigating alleged violations of that law. This view is also consistent with Superior Court Judge Christine Roach’s opinion which points out that “[t]here is no evidence of record to support a claim of personal or official animosity toward these particular plaintiffs.” In addition, she notes that the plaintiffs did not even offer any evidence of an error in legal judgement connected with the alleged statements by Sullivan.

On the legal point, Craney is simply mistaken. The underlying issue in the matter does not involve a “gray area” at all.

Although judgement of the underlying substantive matter needs to be withheld since the matter is still under investigation, the concern or issue raised by this matter clearly implicates a critical provision of the campaign finance law known as the “true source or origin” rule. The campaign finance law provides that “[n]o person shall, directly or indirectly, make a campaign contribution in any name except his own nor in any manner for the purpose of disguising the true origin of the contribution …” M.G.L. c.55, s.10. Similarly, the campaign finance regulations state at 970 CMR-01-22 (9), entitled “True Source of Contributions Must Be Disclosed,” that “[n]o organization or individual may directly or indirectly make a contribution . . .  in any manner for the purpose of disguising the true origin of the contribution . . . .”

Craney is correct that the campaign finance law and regulations allow candidates to contribute unlimited amounts of money to political party committees. He is also correct that political party committees may make unlimited in-kind donations to individual candidates. However, the law does not allow a candidate to make a $25,000 dollar contribution to a political party committee with an understanding or agreement that the party committee will in turn make a substantially similar “in-kind contribution” to another candidate, in this case Sen. Fattman’s wife, Stephanie, who was seeking reelection as register of probate in Worcester County.

The situation under investigation by OCPF appears to raise the possibility of a disguised contribution. If proven, this would be a clear and significant violation of the campaign finance law.

In short, Sullivan is well within his rights to pursue an investigation into these facts and is doing so in accordance with the law. Moreover, if warranted by the investigation, it would be very appropriate to resolve the matter with a referral to the attorney general depending on the ultimate facts of the case. Indeed, in my opinion, the resolution of a disguised contribution of this magnitude with a public resolution letter , as Craney suggests, would be a dereliction of the director’s duty.

Peter Sturges is a former general counsel of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.