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editorial

Tangled campaign fund presents a test of Coakley’s leadership

Attorney General Martha Coakley is responsible for prosecuting those who commit serious violations of state campaign finance law. So Coakley should be deeply embarrassed that her own federal campaign fund is in disarray — and that her committee failed to respond to repeated Federal Election Commission requests to straighten it out.

Every candidate knows that state and federal standards of fund-raising differ, and that Massachusetts law requires that funds not be commingled. So when Coakley ran for the US Senate in 2010, she harvested donations under the federal rules, which currently allow individuals to give up to $2,600 per election, but when she ran for reelection as attorney general and now for governor, she was bound by the far more restrictive state rules, which allow contributions from individuals only up to $500 a year, among other limits.

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But as the Globe’s Frank Phillips reported recently, since her 2010 Senate bid, Coakley has spent $6,000 of her federal dollars on expenses that have promoted her bids for state office — an apparent violation of campaign-finance rules. In addition, since her failed Senate campaign, Coakley’s federal committee has spent $35,000 on software designed to help a candidate manage its database of donors and volunteers and to file FEC reports. Her aides assert that the software hasn’t been used for state campaign purposes. That’s a questionable assertion, since it would be odd for Coakley to spend such a significant sum to help manage information for a federal committee while running for state offices. She should ask the state’s campaign-finance office to investigate whether use of that software system stayed within proper boundaries.

She also needs to clean up other aspects of her federal campaign account, which is in violation of the rules of math. The committee, which started 2011 with $70,012, reported taking in $9,355 since then, while spending $182,125. If true, that should have resulted in a substantial deficit. But Coakley’s last report showed an ending balance of $6,053. Such unreliable accounting raises inevitable questions about just how much money was going in and out, and to whom.

This should be a particular concern for Coakley because she has paid her sister, Anne Gentile, almost $30,000 to oversee the federal campaign account. If that’s the best Gentile can do, Coakley’s campaign record-keeping probably shouldn’t be a family affair.

On the state level, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance reviews questions about candidates’ funds. Most cases are resolved at that point, with only a handful of the most serious ones referred to the attorney general’s office for possible prosecution. As it looks now, the issues with Coakley’s spending probably wouldn’t rise to the level of a referral. But if they do, to reassure the public that the matter is being handled appropriately, Coakley would need to appoint a special assistant attorney general, someone completely independent of her office, to oversee the matter. She has the ability to do exactly that in instances where her office would otherwise have a conflict of interest.

More immediately, Coakley needs to restore public confidence. That means stepping out from behind her campaign spokesman and answering a full range of questions. One barometer of leadership is how well a candidate addresses problems in her own operation. Voters considering Coakley for governor will have an opportunity to judge how forthcoming and effective the attorney general is as she goes about rectifying this mess.

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