As attorney general, Martha Coakley has doggedly pursued campaign finance scofflaws, yet Coakley, now a candidate for governor, has also used her own federal political account for questionable expenditures, while allowing the war chest to fall into fiscal disarray.
Since her failed 2010 Senate bid, Coakley has spent $6,000 in leftover cash to promote a statewide bid for office, much of which appears to be a violation of campaign finance law.
State law prohibits the use of federal campaign funds to support a state race. Coakley has consistently signaled that she is not interested in another Senate run and since 2010 had said that she would instead run for reelection as attorney general, before changing her mind and announcing a bid for governor last month.
Yet she dipped into her federal account to pay for an advertisement and fees at the state party convention that highlighted her position as attorney general, a move her aides say was a mistake. Several months later, she again used the federal cash to travel to the national party convention.
On top of that, Coakley also spent $35,000 from her federal fund — a huge amount for a scarcely active account — on software that helps to maintain a candidate’s fund-raising and volunteer database and to file quarterly financial reports to the Federal Election Commission.
To further oversee the account and ensure that the reports were filed correctly, the campaign paid $28,254 to Coakley’s sister, Anne Gentile. It paid another $10,000 to Megan Brengarth, a federal campaign finance compliance consultant, between April 2o10 and April 2011.
Despite all those expenditures, Coakley’s federal accounts are replete with inaccurate numbers. The result is an accounting nightmare that makes it unclear whether the committee is now running a substantial deficit or has cash on hand, according to its quarterly FEC reports.
After the committee paid off all its debts in 2010, it started 2011 with $70,012. Its reports since then show the committee took in $9,355 in reimbursements and other money owed, but collected no contributions. During that same period, the campaign spent $182,125, well more than it had in cash. Despite that, the committee claimed on its latest campaign finance report to have an ending balance of $6,053.
Meanwhile, Coakley’s federal committee failed to respond to repeated requests from federal campaign finance regulators to straighten out a series of error-riddled reports that it submitted over the last several years. Political aides attributed the miscommunication to an e-mail mix-up.
The campaign insisted that the US Senate database was used for federal purposes only. “The campaign committee made the decision to keep the federal account open to support other federal candidates, like Senator [Edward] Markey, and keep other options open,” spokesman Kyle Sullivan said.
As the state’s chief legal enforcer of campaign finance laws, Coakley is under particular scrutiny to adhere to the rules governing political fund-raising, particularly after taking legal action against several elected officials whose publicly filed records were incomplete and inaccurate.
While the questions surrounding Coakley’s campaign account were far less serious, she brought a criminal indictment against former South Boston legislator Brian P. Wallace on charges of failing to properly document how he spent his campaign cash. A judge reduced the charges to civil penalties.
In August, Coakley filed suit against William Lantigua, the controversial Lawrence mayor, charging that he had committed a range of campaign finance violations and accusing him of an “inability or unwillingness” to comply with the law. She has also brought campaign finance-related criminal charges against Michael E. McLaughlin, the former chief of the Chelsea Housing Authority, and she negotiated a huge campaign finance fine for former lieutenant governor Timothy P. Murray.
Those prosecutions rub up against her own issues with the Federal Election Commission. The agency has written her committee a half-dozen times since early 2011 demanding that it clean up its quarterly balance sheets. The federal committee never responded. Only when the Globe inquired this week did Coakley’s committee begin to prepare amended filings.
Aides say there’s a reason for that: The e-mail communications from the FEC went to a defunct e-mail address.
“Because the e-mails from the FEC were sent to an old e-mail address, the committee was not aware of the issues with the reports,” said Sullivan, the spokesman. “Once we were made aware of the issues, the campaign moved immediately to contact the FEC and address the issues.”
The statement does not explain that Gentile, who serves as treasurer of both Coakley’s state and federal accounts and provided the FEC with the contract address, never informed the agency of any change. Sullivan did not say why Gentile failed to inform the FEC that the e-mail address was no longer correct.
The FEC would not comment directly on the Coakley case, but said it typically makes efforts to get in touch with committees that do not respond to e-mails.
Sullivan did not explain why the filings were so inaccurate after the committee spent so much money on NGP database software, on top of the cash it paid to Coakley’s sister and the compliance consultant to oversee the work. Those filed documents were rarely more than 20 or 30 pages and often as slim as a dozen or fewer.
White the committee’s books fell into chaos, it continued to contribute to Coakley’s favorite candidates, charities, and political groups, as well as to Democratic Party organizations.
Those donations appear to fall within the law. But her use of the Martha Coakley for Senate Committee’s money for her direct political benefit when she was gearing up to run for reelection as attorney general (and now governor) falls into a gray legal area. Beacon Hill political figures created a 1997 law banning the use of federal funds in state politics in order to block members of the congressional delegation from using their campaign money to run for governor.
The $35,000 that Coakley spent on the software seems out of proportion with the committee’s activities during that time. As a state candidate in the same time frame, she paid the firm $18,625 for similar purposes. Yet while the federal committee raised nothing, the state organization took in $1.37 million in contributions.
Coakley declined to be interviewed about the accounting problems.But an aide acknowledged an “error” in some of its expenditures for state political activities, namely the ad and the convention fee.
In June 2012, Coakley’s federal committee paid a $1,000 fee for a state party convention and bought a $1,200 ad for the convention’s booklet, featuring a photo of her and a caption that read “Attorney General.” It made no mention of a potential candidacy for Senate or any other federal office, and claimed to be paid for by Coakley’s state committee, despite the fact that the state committee had no involvement in the purchase.
“We regret the error and will reimburse the funds,” Sullivan said.
He said they are working with the FEC to amend the reports and they aim to shut down the federal committee by the end of the year.
Her federal committee also paid the $3,763.10 in credit card charges that she ran up attending the September 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. Once again, the reason for her trip was clear. Coakley was not attending the event as a would-be federal candidate — she was there to carry out her political duties as an elected constitutional officer of Massachusetts, saying at the time that she was running for reelection. Sullivan insists that her use of the funds for the convention did not violate state law.
Frank Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.