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Mass. GOP chairman may have violated campaign finance law, party treasurer alleges, in escalating woes for state Republican Party

In a possible violation of state campaign finance law, Massachusetts GOP Chairman Jim Lyons seems to have coordinated with an independent political action committee. The opposition research firm was to dig up information on Governor Maura Healey during last year's governor's race.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Embattled Massachusetts GOP Chairman Jim Lyons seems to have coordinated with an independent political action committee, in apparent violation of state campaign finance law, the state party treasurer told campaign finance regulators this week.

Treasurer Pat Crowley told fellow Republicans Thursday that he believes Lyons improperly coordinated with an outside spending group, the Mass Freedom Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee, in engaging an opposition research firm to dig up dirt on Governor Maura Healey during last year’s governor’s race.

“In my opinion,” Crowley wrote, documentation from the research firm, the Stirm Group, “suggests direct coordination between Jim Lyons in his capacity as Chairman of the MA GOP and Antoine Nader, Chairman of the Mass Freedom Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee.” Crowley wrote to fellow Republicans Thursday afternoon, in an e-mail obtained by the Globe, “I have reported this development to [the Office of Campaign and Political Finance].”

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The prospect of possible violations — just the latest in a string of legal and financial challenges for the struggling minority party — emerged this week in the wake of revelations that the GOP owed at least $86,000 in overdue bills for campaign-related services. The Stirm Group said Lyons owed it more than $52,000 for digging up dirt on Healey, including on her personal life and rumored romantic relationships.

In a letter demanding Lyons pay that bill, an attorney for the Stirm Group wrote that Lyons had worked in conjunction with an unnamed third party in soliciting, assessing, and promising payment for the dirt on Healey. The lawyer wrote that Lyons had discussed the opposition research with that third party, and also told the research firm to seek payment from the third party.

According to Crowley’s letter, that third party was Nader, the chairman of an independent expenditure PAC, suggesting Lyons may have violated a law that bars candidates and political parties from coordinating with outside groups.

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Unlike candidates or political parties, independent expenditure PACs can accept donations of any size. But under state law, those outside groups are not allowed to “directly or indirectly coordinate” campaign activity with candidates or political action committees. Committees can spend money in an effort to support candidates, but cannot discuss with those candidates how they plan to spend the money.

An expenditure is considered improperly “coordinated,” regulators say, if it is “made at the request, suggestion, or direction of, or in cooperation, arrangement, consultation, concert or coordination with the candidate or committee on whose behalf, or for whose benefit the expenditure is made.” If an independent PAC and a political party are working with the same vendor — as Lyons appeared to be doing in the case of the Stirm Group — that can also create a “presumption of coordination,” regulators say.

Nader, Lyons, and a spokesman for the GOP did not return requests for comment.

Nader’s PAC, the Mass Freedom Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee, reported spending $140,000 to oppose Healey and support Republican Geoff Diehl in last year’s election. Its largest contribution came from the Republican Governors Association, which gave $235,000.

It would be difficult for the Mass GOP to claim ignorance of the anti-coordination law. In February 2022, the state party’s attorney explicitly asked state campaign finance regulators for guidance on what contact the party leader could permissibly have with independent expenditure PACs.

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A top state regulator advised March 8 that “caution should be exercised to avoid coordination.”

“There should be no coordination between the IEPAC and the state party committee,” wrote OCPF Director William Campbell. “Prohibiting any communication between the chair or other officer/agent of the state party and the IEPAC would be the best practice.”

Jason Tait, communications director for OCPF, would not comment on the matter Thursday and said the office cannot confirm the existence of legal reviews.

Violating state campaign finance law is punishable by fines and even prison time. Any potential penalties would depend on the details of the violation, Tait said.

There is no love lost between Crowley and Lyons. Lyons sued the party treasurer last year over access to the party’s bank account.

Lyons is seeking reelection as chair this month, in a competitive race with major implications for the party’s future. During his four years in leadership, the party has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars from its bank account, about 30,000 registered Republican voters, and more than a dozen seats in the state Legislature, where Republicans now number about 30 out of 200.

Despite that dismal electoral record, some supporters say Lyons’ commitment to conservative principles makes him the best leader for their party. But critics say Lyons has not only botched recent elections but also mismanaged the party’s finances and damaged its reputation with donors and vendors, making new leadership essential.

The Republican State Committee is expected to elect a new chairman Jan. 31.

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Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.