The House Republican leadership, with the cooperation of Democratic leaders, quietly attached an amendment to an election law bill last month that would allow the cash-strapped state GOP party to raise unlimited donations to pay for an expensive legal battle with Tea Party gubernatorial candidate Mark Fisher.
If the House version of the bill becomes law, the Massachusetts Republican Party can avoid a serious financial pinch caused by the nearly $100,000 in legal bills it has so far incurred in its fight with Fisher.
Halfway through this election year, it now has only about $247,000 in its account, with its legal bills threatening to eat up the money it needs to mount challenges to Democrats in statewide and legislative elections this year.
The four-word change, which was proposed by House Minority Leader Bradley Jones, is now in the hands of the Senate. It would restore state party committees to the list of entities that can create legal defense funds under state campaign law. Campaign statutes now allow only individuals or their campaign committees to create those funds, after party committees were banned from doing it five years ago.
In addition to covering its own costs, the party may also be faced with paying Fisher’s equally large legal bills. He is suing the GOP to prove that party leaders defrauded him when they said he missed getting on the September primary ballot by a handful of delegate votes at the March convention.
Faced with the legal action, the party later agreed to qualify him for the ballot. But he is pressing his case that there was impropriety in the balloting. He says the release of the ballots would prove his case and thereby justify his demand that the party pay his legal costs.
Fisher was in high dudgeon Wednesday over Jones’s attempt to get the party off a financial hook in order to fight him.
“Why raise money to fight fellow Republicans?’’ Fisher asked when told of Jones’s move. “People talk about this being a shootout in a lifeboat. I agree, but I don’t have a firearm, and they are shooting. They are shooting themselves in the foot.”
The state party declined to comment on Fisher’s statements or suggestions that Jones’s amendment is aimed at helping the GOP in its legal battle with the Tea Party candidate. Fisher, who is facing an uphill fight against establishment favorite Charlie Baker for the gubernatorial nomination, has created his own defense fund, but has not deposited money into it. His campaign is almost entirely self-funded.
Under current law, state parties can only collect donations for their political committees and the money must be used to fund political operations and campaigns. The law also places a $5,000 annual cap on what an individual can donate to the committees. If a party incurs legal bills, it must be paid out of the political funds.
Jones’s amendment was adopted on June 25 without a debate or a roll call vote, a move that can only happen with the approval of House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo. Jones acknowledged he cleared it through the House Democratic leadership but said he did not speak directly to DeLeo. Minutes later, the full bill — which is aimed at forcing so-called super PACs to disclose their sources of funds — passed the House on a 143-to-4 vote and was sent to the Senate for its approval.
Jones said he, not the state GOP, initiated the change in the law. He said he conveyed to the party what he intended to do, but denied it was specifically directed at helping his party in the Fisher case. Asked what prompted him to push for the change, Jones said the state parties had been able to create special defense funds prior to a 2009 election law statute and that he felt the practice should be reinstated.
“It was one of those issues we have been looking at for a long time,’’ Jones said. He said the super PAC disclosure bill offered the chance to act on it. “This was the perfect opportunity regardless of the outside issues. We don’t do election law bills that often.’’
He said his concern is that politically motivated lawsuits can be filed against state parties and that, under the current statute, the parties would have to draw down their political funds to defend themselves.
“I don’t want to see the scenario where people file frivolous lawsuits just to tie up party resources,’’ he said.
Seth Gitell, DeLeo’s spokesman, said the House speaker would not comment on how the amendment was added to the bill. DeLeo has a strong grip over what language is added to important bills. Campaign finance laws require legal funds to file public reports monthly with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
In terms of campaign finance reform issues, Jones’s amendment appears to be acceptable to those pushing for reforms.
“It is relatively innocuous,’’ said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause/Massachusetts, who has worked with lawmakers in creating the super PAC disclosure legislation.
A spokeswoman for the Republican Party said Jones’s amendment is merely aimed at correcting the 2009 changes that “inadvertently led to the elimination of party defense funds.”
“This proposed change will now also require our legal fund donations and expenditures be reported publicly, an improvement we welcome,’’ said the spokeswoman, Emmalee Kalmbach. Before 2009, defense funds were not required to fully report in a timely fashion.Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.