Tracking the cash
Massachusetts lawmakers turn the corner in reporting donor information
after decades of shrugging off campaign finance disclosure mandates, Massachusetts lawmakers have finally turned the tide in reporting what their donors do for a living, giving watchdogs the tools to monitor the influence of money in state politics.
Under campaign finance law, anyone who contributes an aggregate of $200 or more in a calendar year to a single campaign has to provide his or her occupation and employer information. For years, contributors neglected to provide the information and many campaigns were lax in tracking it down. In the 2007-2008 election cycle, according to a CommonWealth review, more than 21 percent of large donors to state lawmakers were not identified by occupation or employer. In 2009-2010, the number dipped slightly to 20 percent. But in the 2011-2012 cycle, it plummeted to just 4 percent, out of a total of about 19,200 contributors of $200 or more.
Nearly 150 of the 200 state representatives and senators had complete information on all their $200 donors as of August 31. Of the remaining lawmakers, most lacked information on only a handful of contributors; the campaigns of just 12 lawmakers, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, accounted for nearly half of all the donors not identified by occupation or employer.
“We just give it a fair amount of attention,” says state Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont, who shows just one donor of $200 or more with no employment information out of more than 300. “In the world we live in right now, it’s not hard to find someone’s employer or occupation.”
State Sen. Barry Finegold of Andover says he had issues in the past with donors failing to report the information, but a new campaign team has made it a priority to get the information rather than relying on the donor to supply it. “We actively just try to Google people, call people. Most of the donors we know, so for us it’s probably just as easy to get the information,” he says
As of the August 31 reporting date, DeLeo had the most $200-plus donors lacking employment information, but even so the number represented less than 5 percent of his contributors because so many people give to his campaign.
More than 43 percent of the $200-plus donors to the campaign of Rep. Joseph Wagner of Chicopee were not identified by occupation or employer, and they accounted for nearly half of the money he received from those large contributors. Other lawmakers lacking work data on a significant number of $200-plus contributors were Rep. Thomas Calter of Kingston (33 percent unidentified); Tarr, the Senate Republican leader from Gloucester (20 percent); Rep. Antonio Cabral of New Bedford (14 percent), and Sen. Michael Rodrigues of Westport (11 percent).
Rodrigues says sometimes it’s hard to track down the occupations of some donors because the contributor is “a friend of a friend” or unknown to anyone in the campaign. “We’ve gotten a lot better,” he says. “We’ve been trying very hard to collect that information.”
If a contributor fails to identify their occupation or employer, state law requires the candidate’s campaign to make a good-faith effort to obtain the information or return the donation. Jason Tait, the spokesman for the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance, says all a campaign has to do is indicate on its reports that the information has been requested from the donor and they can keep the money. If there is no response, campaigns are supposed to send a follow-up letter requesting it. After that, nothing more is required.
“As long as they send a letter requesting the information, they’ve complied with the law,” says Tait. “We don’t recall ever requiring anyone to return any contributions.”
Over the last year, the state campaign finance office initiated 42 audits of state legislators, requesting copies of letters the lawmakers’ campaign reports indicated had been sent to donors seeking employment information. Wagner and Tarr, in their campaign reports, indicated that they had sent letters requesting employment information from their donors. But when each campaign sent copies of the letters to the state campaign finance office, the letters were dated after the original enforcement letter from the state, with no indication that previous letters had been sent. Neither lawmaker returned calls for comment. Tait says as long as the letters are now on file, the campaigns are in compliance regardless of the date the letters were sent.
Some legislators’ campaigns appear to put little effort in tracking down the work information of donors. Tarr’s campaign report, for instance, shows a letter requesting information had been sent in connection with a $500 contribution from Robert Maginn. Maginn is the chairman of the state GOP.
State Sen. John Hart of South Boston, who hosts the annual St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast, attended by most of the state’s top politicians and insiders, could not find the employment information for Democratic lobbyist John Sasso, who donated $400 between last year and this year, or Thomas Drechsler, a well-known Boston attorney and business partner of former House speaker Thomas Finnegan, who donated $200 to Hart. Since 2005, Drechsler has made 63 contributions to candidates and his employment information is listed in every campaign report, including those for donations under $200, except Hart’s.Wagner’s campaign reports list a couple from Westfield, both of whom gave the maximum $500 annual contribution to his campaign several times since 2006. Under occupation and employer, Wagner’s report says “Letter sent. Info requested” each time they donated. That same couple is fully identified in other candidates’ campaign reports, however, including the wife’s occupation as executive director of the Westfield Business Improvement District through 2011. The Westfield BID is a high-profile organization that has interaction with local and state elected officials.
Then there is the curious case of Maryanne Lewis who tends to make contributions of $199 to candidates, $1 below the mandated reporting trigger for occupation and employment. Lewis is an attorney and lobbyist who formerly served as a state representative and ran for Congress as an independent. It’s unclear what advantage she would gain by giving just below the $200 threshold, but between 2004 and this year she made 135 donations of $199 each to lawmakers. Her occupation didn’t have to be identified in connection with those donations, but in 40 instances the campaigns identified her anyway. In fact, four lawmakers who served with Lewis on Beacon Hill sent letters requesting her employment information. Lewis did not return several calls for comment.