Was the Sutton GOP Town Committee just a conduit?

What you need to know about the Fattman campaign finance controversy

REPUBLICAN STEPHANIE FATTMAN seemed poised to easily win reelection last year as register of probate in Worcester County. She had a pile of campaign cash, the name recognition of an incumbent, and an opponent who was dealing with health problems and a novice at politics. 

But Fattman wasn’t leaving anything to chance. She outspent her Democratic opponent John Dolan III by more than $121,000. A super PAC affiliated with Gov. Charlie Baker spent an additional $79,138 on her behalf. And her hometown Sutton Republican Town Committee pumped more than $31,000 into her campaign in the form of canvassing help, telephone calls, and signage. She ended up winning by eight points, 54-46.

 Now her campaign strategy is coming under scrutiny, as the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance investigates whether Stephanie Fattman and her power couple partner – Sen. Ryan Fattman – engaged in an end-run around campaign finance laws using the Sutton Republican Town Committee. 

 The dispute broke into public view when Ryan Fattman and his wife filed suit against Michael Sullivan, the director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, accusing him of bias. “I will not let a biased director overreach his authority,” Ryan Fattman said in a statement. “I will not allow him to make false claims and accusations behind closed doors. And I will not be bullied in a matter that can have serious consequences.”

 Sullivan insisted he was merely complying with laws regulating the secrecy of investigations by his office, and a judge agreed with him, refusing to grant any leeway to the Fattmans.

 No one is publicly saying what the investigation is about, but it appears to focus on whether Ryan Fattman violated regulations that prohibit contributions greater than $100 to another campaign committee, in this case his wife’s. The senator donated $25,000 to the Sutton Republican Town Committee on August 17, 2020, and the town committee doled out $31,000 over the next few months to Stephanie Fattman’s reelection campaign. 

 Both contributions, viewed separately, were legal. The question is whether the Sutton Republican Town Committee was merely acting as a conduit, or pass-through, for the Fattman-to-Fattman contribution. The Sutton Republican Town Committee is headed by Sen. Fattman’s brother and the senator himself is the secretary. Five Fattmans in all sit on the 12-person committee.

 According to state campaign finance regulations, “a person may not make a contribution to a political committee on the condition or with the agreement or understanding that the funds or a substantial portion of the funds contributed must subsequently be contributed by that committee to any other committee.”

 Now both sides in this increasingly messy political fight are waging war through proxies. Paul Craney of the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance wrote an op-ed saying the matter should be settled with a public resolution letter and not referred to Attorney General Maura Healey for criminal prosecution. Six former chairs of the state Republican Party also weighed in, siding with the Fattmans and suggesting the Massachusetts Democratic Party has followed the same broad rules. 

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

 But Gus Bickford, the chair of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, said in a telephone interview that the Fattmans appear to have violated one of the central tenets of campaign finance law. “This quite clearly is a pass-through,” he said. “It’s just a way to circumvent the law.”

 And Peter Sturges, who used to work with Sullivan as legal counsel at the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, said in an op-ed that Sullivan is just doing his job, investigating whether Sen. Fattman made a “disguised contribution” to his wife. “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,” he said.