Embattled Massachusetts Republican Party chairman Jim Lyons appears to have communicated directly with an outside political action committee about digging up dirt on Governor Maura Healey during last year’s election, according to e-mails obtained by the Globe.
The surfacing of the e-mails follows accusations levied by the state GOP’s treasurer, who last week told party officials that he believed the coordination between the chairman and the PAC violated state campaign finance laws and that he would report the matter to state regulators.
The treasurer, Pat Crowley, has previously clashed with Lyons over state party finances.
The e-mails reveal that Lyons sent multiple messages last fall to Antoine Nader, chairman of the Mass Freedom Independent Expenditure PAC, referring to opposition research Lyons had solicited on Healey during her bid for governor. The Globe obtained copies of the e-mails from a trove of documents that were sent Wednesday afternoon to members of the Republican State Committee.
State law prohibits independent expenditure PACs, which can accept donations of any size, from “directly or indirectly” coordinating with candidates or political parties. In other words, these outside PACs can spend money in an effort to support candidates, but cannot discuss with those candidates how they plan to spend the money.
But the e-mails appear to show Lyons and Nader working together, with the same firm conducting opposition research, the Stirm Group, to coordinate opposition research on Healey.
“On one sheet of paper please explain what you think we should highlight regarding your investigation,” Lyons wrote to Nader and the research firm in one Oct. 17 e-mail. The subject line: “Re: Healey Final Report and Relevant Data.”
“I will forward to Tony Nader,” Lyons wrote to a Stirm executive in a different e-mail dated Oct. 16, apparently referring to the research on Healey. He signed off, “Thanks, Jim.”
In other e-mails that copy Nader, Lyons suggests times to connect on the phone. The Stirm Group, which had been hired to probe Healey’s past, including her personal life, was in direct contact with Nader about the research and payment for it, the e-mails show. An attorney for the Stirm Group earlier told state Republicans that Lyons directed the firm to seek payment for its opposition research services from Nader.
Nader, Lyons, and a spokesperson for the party did not return requests for comment Wednesday.
The possibility of a state investigation of its campaign finances is another controversial development for the state GOP, and for Lyons, at a crucial time. The state party is struggling with dwindling fund-raising and influence on Beacon Hill, especially since former Republican governor Charlie Baker left office and was replaced by a Democrat.
And Lyons himself is battling to keep his post, with the state party’s regular election for officers set for Jan. 31. The outcome of that contest will carry enormous implications for the party, which has been bitterly divided for years between hard-line conservatives who back Lyons and more moderate members supportive of Baker. Lyons’s critics say the recent disclosures, as well as revelations the party owes at least $86,000 for campaign-related services, make it clear the party needs new leadership.
The documents, including the e-mails from Lyons to Nader, were shared with Republican State Committee members this week as part of an update from Crowley about the party’s debts.
The campaign finance law at issue dictates that outside groups such as Nader’s PAC may not “directly or indirectly coordinate” campaign activity with candidates or political action committees. 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 Crowley’s documents would appear to show — that can also create a “presumption of coordination,” regulators say.
There is no love lost between Crowley and Lyons. Lyons sued the party treasurer last year over access to the party’s bank account.
As a matter of policy, the state campaign finance office does not confirm whether it is investigating any political operation. Michael Sullivan, a former head of the office, told the Globe that “a thorough investigation takes time.”
“But the documents publicly available certainly indicate that there was communication, and communication between a candidate or a party and a super PAC is prohibited,” Sullivan added.
It would be difficult for the Massachusetts GOP to claim ignorance of the anticoordination 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.
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.”
Violations of state campaign finance laws are punishable by fines and in certain circumstances, prison time. Any potential penalties would depend on the details of the violation, according to OCPF spokesman Jason Tait.
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 also received $75,000 from Nader himself, and a handful of other donations from Massachusetts residents, including a few who routinely support Republicans here, such as Richard Green, owner of 1A Automotive.
The super PAC was organized in summer 2022 “to highlight key issues and showcase solutions-minded conservative candidates in Massachusetts,” according to its filings with state campaign finance officials. The PAC is “guided by foundational Judeo Christian family values,” its statement of organization says, and intended to highlight issues such as consumer costs and the economy, as well as “anti-religion restrictions.”