State Senator Dean A. Tran assigned his taxpayer-funded staff campaign tasks, asked them to help with fund-raising work, and had his public and political work so intertwined, one staffer said, he was confused about where one stopped and the other began, according to an internal Senate investigation made public Thursday.
The Fitchburg Republican, who was elected to the Senate in 2017, was quickly stripped of his leadership post within the Senate GOP caucus and, in an extraordinary step, was barred from interacting with his staff except through official e-mails.
The fallout followed the release of a 15-page report from the Senate Committee on Ethics, which alleged that the expectation to help Tran’s political efforts was so great within his public office, his campaign manager had threatened at least one Senate staffer with being fired if the employee didn’t work on Tran’s 2020 reelection campaign.
The ethics committee determined that Tran not only violated Senate rules but also likely violated state campaign finance and conflict-of-interest laws, according to the report.
Tran, who had been the assistant minority whip, strenuously denied the allegations and said the report was “libelous.”
Senate rules bar members from employing staffers who “do not perform tasks which contribute to the work of the Senate," such as instead performing political work. State law also directly prohibits using public resources, which includes staff, for campaign purposes.
The Senate referred its findings to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance and the State Ethics Commission. Officials at both agencies said they could neither confirm nor deny they had opened a review or investigation into the allegations.
In a statement, Senate President Karen E. Spilka said the Senate adopted the committee’s recommendations Thursday “by a unanimous and bipartisan action," and said there was “overwhelming evidence of violations of the rules of the Senate on the part of Senator Tran.”
The report laid out a series of allegations dating back to 2018, often in intimate detail. It said it was an “open secret” that “the boys” — male members of Senator Tran’s staff — were working on his campaign during normal business hours at a GOP coordinated campaign office, to the point other staffers were warned by volunteers “not to do what the boys are doing."
Tran also allegedly directed staffers to put constituents they helped on a fund-raising, or “supporters,” list. After a kennel club asked Tran in September 2019 to speak at its annual meeting, Tran sent a staffer an e-mail discussing how such clubs “spend a lot of money and could be very good supporters of ours,” according to the report.
“Senator Tran then explicitly told the staffer, ‘these people should be added to our fund-raising events,’” the report states.
In a March 11 interview with the committee, Tran denied he ever asked his staff to work on his campaign or fund-raising, and said “to the best of his knowledge,” any staff work on the campaign was done voluntarily and after hours, the report said. He also denied that his “supporters” database was used for fund-raising purposes.
In a phone interview with the Globe Thursday, Tran criticized the report as a product of an “internal and partisan process through an anonymous letter.” He said he received a copy of the report Thursday morning, an hour before a joint Senate caucus where he also addressed the findings. He said he wasn’t even aware of some accusations until he read them, including what the committee described as the alleged threat from his campaign manager to a staff member.
“It’s a partisan and opinionated report,” Tran told the Globe. “I am in consultation with my lawyers as well as other parties. I look at the report as one that is libelous and [defamatory] of character. . . . Those allegations are false, misleading, and the report and the findings would never succeed in a court of law.”
The report says that the initial investigation was sparked by a pair of anonymous letters sent to Spilka’s office and others. But it states that they only contained allegations about Tran’s 2018 campaign, and that the “investigation revealed that Senator Tran continues to use staff and public resources for campaign purposes.”
The seven-member ethics committee includes five Democrats as well as two Republicans, including Senator Bruce E. Tarr, the Senate minority leader. Tarr did not return a phone call seeking comment Thursday.
The committee said it found repeated evidence that Tran’s public and campaign work mixed, including with Tran personally involved.
A Senate employee reported being asked by a senior staffer to print 50 copies of Tran’s campaign fund-raising form and deliver them to a fast-food restaurant in his district. That same senior staffer also delivered boxes of fund-raising materials to Tran’s public office, and at least one Senate employee stuffed them into envelopes, according to the report.
One staffer told the committee that soon after joining Tran’s staff, he or she attended an event with Tran where the senator brought campaign materials. The staffer asked Tran about “campaign expectations,” according to the report, to which Tran smiled and said the staffer would have to help with the campaign.
Tran then allegedly added: “We all do."
“Senator Tran’s staff was reportedly so engaged with campaign activities that there was confusion over who actually worked in the office,” the report states. “One staffer did not know that the three aides hired during the summer of 2018 were Senate employees, despite the fact that they had been hired to work with the staffer directly.”
Tran said, despite the findings, he plans to “follow through on my campaign” for reelection to represent a district that includes Fitchburg, Gardner, Leominster, and several surrounding towns.
“I strongly believe the motive and the goal behind this is to bring negative attention to my campaign," he said. “And so far, it will not be successful. I have very strong support from the people in my district. I have served them well.”
Tran, however, also expressed frustration.
“Don’t get into politics,” he told a Globe reporter. “Because this is what happens. My wife has been asking me to go back into the private sector.”