A politically powerful Massachusetts couple is asking a judge to temporarily stop the state’s top campaign finance regulator from referring an investigation into them to state prosecutors, marking an extraordinary turn in what had been a private state probe.
The request from state Senator Ryan Fattman and Worcester County Register of Probate Stephanie Fattman, both Sutton Republicans, is an unusual one. The couple, as well as their family members and the Sutton Republican Town Committee, last week sued Michael Sullivan, the head of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, and sought an injunction against him. The move effectively pushed Sullivan’s probe — which would typically be kept under wraps at this stage — into public view.
The exact allegations Sullivan is pursuing remain unclear. Sullivan has not referred any case against the Fattmans to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, which in turn could pursue a criminal or civil probe of its own, and Sullivan’s office has not detailed what it’s investigating. The Fattmans’ lawsuit also accuses Sullivan of not providing a full explanation of the evidence he’s compiled.
But the Fattmans — in both their complaint and a lengthy statement released Friday by the senator — said that Sullivan launched a probe in December, including into contributions Ryan Fattman’s campaign made to state and local Republican committees.
Public records show that the four-term senator in August made a $25,000 donation to the Sutton Republican Town Committee, where a relative and fellow plaintiff, Anthony Fattman, is chairman and the senator himself is listed as secretary. The contribution accounted for two-thirds of what the committee raised last year, according to its records.
In the two-plus months after Ryan Fattman’s donation, the town committee reported spending $41,000, with the vast majority of it — $33,253 — coming in the form of in-kind contributions to help Stephanie Fattman’s campaign, including in canvassing and phone calls to buttress her successful reelection to a second, six-year term.
The help was substantial. The in-kind contributions from the town committee accounted for more than half of the $61,500 that Stephanie Fattman reported raising during the same time frame.
It is not clear if these specific donations are the subject of Sullivan’s probe. Fattman did not immediately respond to a phone call or an e-mailed question about whether the $25,000 donation was intended to help his wife’s campaign.
Fattman, the Senate’s assistant minority leader, said in a nearly 950-word statement that donating money to GOP entities is a “common practice to help candidates get elected or re-elected.” State law allows candidates to make donations in unlimited amounts to these entities.
But, according to Fattman‘s statement, he said Sullivan contends the lawmaker violated a state law that bars candidates from giving more than $100 donation to another candidate. The complaint filed in the lawsuit focuses on OFPC regulations that says candidates may not make contributions to a political committee “on the condition or with the agreement or understanding” that the funds must then be sent to someone else.
Sullivan’s office declined to comment Friday, and referred a reporter to Healey’s office, which is representing Sullivan in the lawsuit. Appearing in a public court hearing Friday, attorneys wrangled over what they can disclose about the lawsuit without publicizing the underlying details of the probe.
WBUR first reported the existence of the lawsuit.
“Since I first ran for the Senate in 2014, I’ve made donations exactly like this each campaign cycle to help re-elect myself and to help other Republican candidates running for office,” Fattman said in his statement. “But now, two weeks before he leaves office, Sullivan contends that my donations violate” campaign finance law.
Fattman said Sullivan told him that he “targeted” his case. “I will not be bullied in a matter that can have serious consequences,” the senator said.
Sullivan, who retired in late 2019 after leading OCPF for 25 years, returned to lead the office during the COVID-19 pandemic while officials searched for his replacement. His successor, Woburn City Clerk William Campbell, is expected to join OCPF on April 12.
At the heart of the Fattmans’ lawsuit is a complaint that Sullivan has refused to fully detail the evidence against the senator, and that he’s pursed a biased investigation into Fattman and the other plaintiffs in the waning weeks of his tenure. The case is making “a mockery of due process,” according to a memo their attorney filed.
The Fattmans contend Sullivan violated the law in how he pursued the investigation, focusing intently on a comment he made during one interview when a Fattman attorney questioned Sullivan’s apparent conclusion that the senator may have violated the law, citing the specific section’s use of the word “may” as opposed to “must.”
“I don’t care what the law says. I don’t care about the difference between must and shall and may,” Sullivan reportedly responded, according to court documents filed by the Fattmans.
Fattman said he requested Sullivan recuse himself, which he denied. The Fattmans then filed suit, asking Suffolk Superior Court Judge Christine Roach to temporarily bar Sullivan or OCPF from referring a probe to Healey’s office. Sullivan sent Fattman a notice in February that he intends to send the allegations to prosecutors after concluding there was evidence of a violation, according to a memo filed by the Fattmans’ attorney.
“His timing of this case has nothing to do with the rights that should be afforded to the plaintiff,” Richard Baldwin, an attorney representing the Fattmans, told Roach in the hearing on Friday. “It entirely has to do with his desire, because he’s on his way out the door, to get one last defendant for his trophy case before he leaves.”
Roach dismissed that, saying she sees no evidence that that is what is driving Sullivan’s actions.
“What I see is someone who started something and is trying to finish it. That is not unusual at all,” she said. “There may be some other reason that it’s not fair to your clients. [But] I’m not accepting that characterization.”
The initial hearing into the case on March 19 was closed to the public. Roach on Friday allowed a series of court documents she previously impounded to be made public, but she did not rule on the Fattmans’ request for the preliminary injunction to block any referral.
Baldwin, the Fattmans’ attorney, said in Friday’s hearing he’s asking that the judge tell Sullivan “that he cannot complete this process until the court . . . has decided the issue of whether or not the plaintiffs are entitled to [the] evidence against them.”
Julie Green, an assistant attorney general representing Sullivan, said the request would mark “a really extraordinary remedy,” and argued that under state law, the director is not required to produce all the evidence he has in the investigation into Fattman.
OCPF typically does not confirm nor deny whether it has launched an investigation, but can make such information public once it makes a referral to the attorney general.
Green said she would seek to keep some documents impounded in the case, to protect details of the investigation, even though the Fattmans’ attorneys — who previously sought to shield many of the documents from public view — said they were no longer seeking that.
After Roach asked the Fattmans’ attorneys to file a motion to explain their change in position, Tad Heuer, one of their lawyers, asked why, explaining that usually they’re only asked to file a brief if they’re seeking something.
“As far as I can tell, sir,” Roach said, “there’s nothing usual about this case.”