SINCE 2012, I’ve worked in a profession that is heavily regulated by national and state campaign finance rules. My approach is to understand the rules, make sure they are clear and fair, and to follow the rules while also fulfilling my organization’s mission statement. Anyone who know me knows I take campaign finance law very seriously.
I don’t always agree with the fairness of some of these rules, as was the case with challenging the “union loophole” in Massachusetts campaign finance law. I worked to bring the issue to court and even petition the case to the Supreme Court of the United States. While those court challenges were unsuccessful, Michael Sullivan, the director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF), was convinced enough to admit the agency made an error with how they interpreted the union loophole. Our efforts resulted in working with Sullivan and the agency to change the law to bring more fairness in how direct donations to candidates are handled.
As was the case with Sullivan’s incorrect interpretation of the union loophole, I am again questioning the “fairness” and the “clarity” of his recent decisions, specifically his recent actions toward state Sen. Ryan Fattman, Worcester Country Register of Probate Stephanie Fattman, and the Fattman family.
Director Sullivan was appointed in 1994 and has served in his role for 27 years, or approximately 9,855 days, yet with less than 14 days before he leaves his position, he is trying to reinterpret after the fact how political parties and candidates interact at the expense of the Fattman family’s reputation. 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.
Those have been the long-standing rules, and they’ve been built on common sense. The Massachusetts Republican and Democratic parties and their candidates have benefited from this rule for years and for years this rule has been fair and clear to all. The Fattmans did not violate these rules. So why is it that, after 27 years, the rules are suddenly being reinterpreted by Sullivan?
According to the legal case brought by the Fattman family against Sullivan, the outgoing director was quoted as saying “I don’t care about the law” when the Fattman’s attorney pointed to the clear and fair law that has been working for the last 27 years and the Fattmans’ compliance with it. Director Sullivan was also quoted as saying he was “targeting” the Fattmans, that he “felt” like the Fattmans were in violation, and stated his displeasure with lawyers. The more information that becomes public about this matter, the more it appears to be a political issue rather than a legal issue.
OCPF usually deals with gray legal issues through public resolution letters and I think this is the public resolution for the agency and the outgoing director to take for this matter. The case should not be referred to the attorney general’s office.
According to OCPF’s rules, a public resolution letter “may be issued in instances where the office found no reason to believe a violation occurred; where no further action or investigation is warranted; or where a subject “did not comply” with the law but, in OCPF’s view, the case is able to be settled in an informal fashion with an educational letter or a requirement that some corrective action be taken. A public resolution letter does not necessarily imply wrongdoing on the part of a subject and does not require agreement by a subject.”
Since 2009, which is as far back as OCPF’s data is public, Sullivan has preferred this action nearly 88 percent of the time when dealing with campaign finance matters. Since 2009, Sullivan has agreed to 417 public resolution letters, 51 disposition agreements, and only four referrals to the attorney general’s office for further action. OCPF’s data indicate it would be uncommon for the agency to not treat this matter as a public resolution letter.
However, now knowing the testimony that was given in court against Sullivan, in which all the evidence was not shared with the Fattman family, the director scheduled a hearing date in which the Fattmans could not attend, and the concerning quotes Sullivan gave, OCPF should now cease from making this anymore of a political issue than it already has.
In order to preserve its non-partisan reputation, OCPF’s outgoing director should treat this matter as he has nearly 88 percent of the time in the past, through a public resolution letter.
Paul Diego Craney is the spokesperson and board member of Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance.