The Massachusetts Republican Party, which has struggled mightily to raise cash in recent years, asked state campaign finance regulators last month if it can use its own money to pay attorney fees for a Republican candidate facing “legal actions” brought by a state agency, according to documents made public late last week.
It wasn’t immediately clear whose legal bills the party could be seeking to help pay. A letter that David W. Carr, the party’s attorney, sent the Office of Campaign and Political Finance in mid-May did not identify a particular candidate, and Carr wrote that the request for an opinion regarded “expenditures that may or may not be made.”
The party specifically asked if it can tap its own legal defense fund to pay costs for a candidate who is facing “legal actions initiated by a state administrative or law enforcement agency,” according to a copy reviewed by the Globe.
Republican Party chairman Jim Lyons, state Senator Ryan Fattman, and Stephanie Fattman, the Worcester County Register of Probate and Ryan Fattman’s wife, were each referred to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office in April by the state campaign finance office, which said it had evidence they and others may have violated various campaign finance laws last year.
Lyons and the Fattmans have denied breaking any laws. A spokeswoman for Healey’s office said it’s still reviewing the case.
Neither Lyons nor a Republican Party spokesman returned requests for comment Friday about the request to campaign finance regulators. Ryan Fattman also did not return a call or email.
The party’s letter inflamed tensions within its already deeply divided state committee, where some leaders say they were unaware the party was exploring paying for a lone candidate’s legal costs. The party has been roiled by internal clashes for weeks, including calls for Lyons to resign over for his handling of anti-gay remarks made by a fellow Republican.
The party’s question on paying legal fees is a novel one, campaign finance officials said. William C. Campbell, the agency’s director, said it’s never been asked by party officials before if they can use its own legal defense fund to pay for a candidate’s legal costs.
His answer also was clear: No, it can’t — though a candidate can set up his or her own fund, which the state party could then help manage, according to a June 8 letter he sent in response to Carr’s request.
Both political parties and candidates are allowed to register legal defense funds with the state regulators. They can raise unlimited sums of money, including from businesses, through the accounts and spend the money to “defend against a criminal matter” or pay fees related to a civil lawsuit, according to state regulations.
But, Campbell wrote, “there is no reference in the statute to the possibility of a state party committee using an existing legal defense fund to pay legal defense costs for individual candidates.”
The GOP’s request to Campbell’s office appeared to catch some party leaders off-guard. Patrick Crowley, the party’s treasurer, declined comment Friday, saying he was not aware of the advisory opinion, nor was he “the one who asked the question.”
Amy Carnevale, a member of the party’s 80-member state committee, said Lyons did not reference the request at its meeting on Wednesday when she asked about spending in its legal defense fund, which has not reported raising any funds since late 2018.
Such accounts are not required to publicly disclose how they spend funds. But Carnevale said Lyons disclosed at Wednesday’s meeting that the party used money from the fund to help pay for Helen Brady’s successful court challenge to appear on last year’s ballot in the Ninth Congressional District. (Brady went on to lose her race against Representative William Keating, the Democratic incumbent, by 25 points.) Lyons “did not mention that it was used to assist any other candidates,” Carnevale said.
“I think it’s a surprise to most of us,” she said of the party’s request for an opinion from the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
The party has struggled to raise funds since Lyons was elected chairman in early 2019. It had just $112,404 in its state fundraising account at the end of May and another $87,782 in a federal account as of the end of April, according to its most recent data filings. The $1.9 million the state party raised during 2019 and 2020 through its federal fundraising account was the lowest for a two-year cycle in more than a decade.
The party’s financial situation appears so dire, a group of former party leaders wrote in a letter Thursday, it has failed to raise enough to “even stage a reasonable convention, much less support candidates for office.”
State Representative Shawn Dooley, a state committee member who unsuccessfully challenged Lyons for the chairman role in January, said Lyons never informed the full state committee that the party was weighing whether it could spend money on someone else’s legal costs.
“It’s kind of a slap in the face,” the Norfolk Republican said. “With everyone that’s running, the fact that he’s [considering] using this money for one particular person, we’re having a hard enough time raising money as it is. The fact that he’s willing to do that is very troubling.”
Lyons has been under fire in recent weeks for not forcefully condemning Deborah Martell, an elected Republican leader who told a GOP congressional candidate she was “sickened” that he and his husband had adopted children together.
The incident has damaged Lyons’s standing in the party, with 29 of 30 Massachusetts House Republicans calling on him last week to speak out against Martell or resign. Still, at Wednesday’s meeting, there was no concerted effort to strip him of his leadership role, which would require a two-thirds vote of the committee. Lyons was reelected as chairman in January with 39 votes out of 75 cast, and he still has the support of much of the committee, fellow Republicans said.