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Judge denies bid by senator, wife to block officials from referring probe into them to state prosecutors

Ryan and Stephanie Fattman.
Ryan and Stephanie Fattman.Michele McDonald

A Massachusetts judge on Tuesday denied a request from a state senator that she temporarily block campaign finance regulators from referring an investigation into him, his wife, and other family members to prosecutors, dealing them a legal blow amid an unusually public probe.

Suffolk Superior Court Judge Christine Roach also declined a request Tuesday by state Senator Ryan Fattman, a Sutton Republican, and others that the Office of Campaign and Political Finance provide them with “all” the evidence that director Michael Sullivan has compiled against them.

Roach wrote in her 18-page ruling that the Fattmans have “no reasonable likelihood of success” proving that Sullivan violated state law by not turning over all the evidence, or that he violated their due process by not recusing himself from the probe, as they have demanded.

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Fattman and his wife, Worcester County Register of Probate Stephanie Fattman, as well as their family members and the Sutton Republican Town Committee, had sued Sullivan and sought an injunction against him. They argued that he refused to fully detail the evidence against them and that he’s pursued a biased and “illegal” investigation with the goal of, as their attorney claimed, getting “one last defendant for his trophy case” before he steps down from his position next month.

Roach, however, dismissed that. “There is no record to support a claim of personal or official animosity towards these particular plaintiffs,” she wrote Tuesday.

In early February, Sullivan issued the Fattmans a notice of intent to refer the investigation to prosecutors, saying his office found evidence the couple and the other plaintiffs had violated a rule 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.

The exact allegations Sullivan is pursuing remain unclear, and Sullivan has yet to refer 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.

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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 in August the four-term senator made a $25,000 donation to the Sutton Republican Town Committee, where a relative and fellow plaintiff, Anthony Fattman, is chairman; the senator himself is listed as secretary of the committee. 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.

It is not clear if these specific donations are the subject of Sullivan’s probe. Sullivan’s office has not publicly detailed the allegations, and a spokesman declined comment Tuesday on Roach’s decision. Healey’s office, which represented Sullivan in court, also declined comment.

In her decision Tuesday, Roach wrote that Sullivan disclosed to the plaintiffs a “generic list” of evidence he had, including emails and texts among them and a third party, and what she called “certain invoices.”

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“The regulations provide for an opportunity to be heard,” not to hand over every piece of evidence, Roach wrote. “The Director did not find facts, or make rulings of law. He merely performed his duties [to investigate].”

Sullivan, who has led the Office of Campaign and Political Finance for more than 25 years and returned from retirement to lead the office until officials named his replacement, is scheduled to step down from the post early next month. His successor, Woburn City Clerk William Campbell, is expected to join the office on April 12.

In a statement Tuesday, Ryan Fattman accused Sullivan of having “rushed” the investigation ahead of his departure and of being inflexible in setting hearing dates, robbing Fattman of a fair chance to defend himself.

“Outgoing Director Sullivan’s motivations on this matter remain a mystery. We have been left in the dark, as has been the public,” Fattman said. “Unfortunately, as a result of today’s court decision, now this matter goes back to Sullivan’s closed-door and biased proceedings.”

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.

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But Roach said given all the evidence, his comment in an informal interview “cannot reasonably be taken literally,” given the investigation has followed the law as written.

“Plaintiffs chose to file their lawsuit, as was their right,” Roach said. “However, they cannot now unilaterally determine the factual scope of the controversy they have presented.”

She added that the Fattmans have also not proven they would face “irreparable harm” should she not intervene in the probe. And while they face the potential of a criminal referral and indictment, “that potential has not yet been realized and it may never be.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.