fb-pixel Skip to main content

Campaign finance law shields violators

When the committee campaigning for a slots parlor in Revere unexpectedly revealed the source of its funding just before the Nov. 8 election — admitting it was funded by the casino developers whom opponents had suspected all along — it was unclear what had triggered the admission.

Had there been a complaint? A violation? A fine?

The state Office of Campaign and Political Finance wouldn’t say.

Without explanation, six days before the election, OCPF’s website showed new names on old reports, crediting the same campaign contributions to completely different donors.

Gone was the name of the Delaware firm whose contributions had started the campaign a full year earlier. In its place was the name of a Saipan-based company run by two controversial casino developers who had failed to win slots parlor licenses in other states — and whose involvement the committee had repeatedly denied.

Advertisement



“They just lied,” said Celeste Ribeiro Myers, a casino opponent who had worked against the ballot question. “Maybe it was their strategy all along.”

Only after the election did the Question 1 ballot committee chairman acknowledge that the disclosures were made at the request of the campaign finance office. But OCPF won’t confirm or deny that.

The same law that demands transparency of campaign contributions shields those accused of violations from being called out too close to Election Day. Violations can’t be referred to the attorney general’s office for prosecution during the 120 days leading up to the election — the four months during which most campaigning occurs.

And because the law also demands grand jury secrecy, the office won’t discuss investigations that are underway until they’re resolved. OCPF director Michael J. Sullivan extends the protections even further than required by statute, refusing to publicize lesser violations that are resolved by agreement within the 120 days before an election.

Advertisement



That virtually ensures that Massachusetts voters won’t learn about an alleged campaign finance violation in the heated final weeks of a campaign — even if the subject admits it, the violation is blatant, and a settlement is reached. Those who cheat won’t get called out until after the election and after the case is resolved.

Why should an office aimed at enforcing campaign finance law keep violations secret? Sullivan said the shield is intended to protect campaigns from spurious allegations of wrongdoing.

“I believe the legislative intent was that this office would not be used as a political football,” Sullivan said in an interview. “Quite frankly, if somebody was in this office who was partisan, think about the damage they could do.”

While that blackout period could guard against allegations in a campaign’s final days — think of the e-mail scandal that roiled Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign — the silence almost ensures that voters won’t learn the truth before the election. Who wants to know in December whether the campaign they supported was lying to them?

“It’s terrible,” said Pam Wilmot, director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a government watchdog group that studies money in politics. “The voters have the right to know who’s funding political campaigns, whether they’re ballot question campaigns or campaigns for public office. That’s what the campaign finance law is designed to do,” Wilmot said. “Messenger matters. And knowing who the funders are is part of making that determination, and we need it before the election.”

Advertisement



The committee pushing for Ballot Question 1, which would have allowed for an additional slots parlor in Massachusetts, was always shrouded in mystery.

The “Horse Racing and Education Committee” was formed last October by Eugene A. McCain Jr., a US-born developer living in Thailand, who suddenly turned up in Revere with paid signature-gatherers for a campaign.

McCain proposed a hotel and slots parlor development near Suffolk Downs race track and began negotiating deals to buy and redevelop properties, including a trailer park, on which to build it.

To chair his committee, McCain hired a political consultant who worked in the Northern Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth in the Pacific, fueling suspicion among opponents.

“When I see these guys coming in from the Mariana Islands, what is their interest in this area?” Myers said.

The opponents began to suspect that the ballot campaign was secretly being driven by Shawn A. Scott, a casino developer who has launched similar ballot initiatives to build slots parlors in Maine and elsewhere. Scott is a partner with financier John K. Baldwin in Bridge Capital LLC, an investment firm located on the Northern Mariana island of Saipan.

But the campaign committee chairman, Jason Osborne, said he had never worked with those men, and McCain insisted they were not involved. The first campaign finance report, filed in October 2015, showed that funding came from a Delaware-based company called Capital Productions LLC.

That information stood until six days before the election, when the report was suddenly rewritten to show all the early funding actually came from Bridge Capital. Ultimately, the committee spent more than $3.6 million from Bridge Capital, as well as a second company linked to Scott and to men who listed their addresses in Cambodia and Japan.

Advertisement



“That wasn’t a little faux pas or a little mistake. This is a big deal,” said Myers. The campaign “knew who the players were.”

The attorney for the committee, Hayley Trahan-Liptak, declined to explain the reason for the late-breaking changes. But a person involved in the dispute told the Globe that the revisions were apparently demanded by OCPF after a TV viewer noticed the campaign’s ads didn’t list its five top contributors, as required by a 2014 change in campaign finance law. Campaign finance law also prohibits anyone from making a contribution in a different name or disguising its origin.

“We were in communication with OCPF and they wanted further clarification on our disclaimer,” Osborne said. “We were happy to make any revisions that they asked us to.”

Campaign finance offices typically don’t reveal investigations or violations until after an election — a point that some campaign committees exploit, said Dorothy Brizill, executive director of DCWatch, a good-government organization that follows Washington politics and public affairs.

In Massachusetts, the disclosure likely didn’t make much of a difference. Voters defeated the slots parlor ballot ballot question decisively.

However, Myers said, it was distressing that the truth did not come out until the eleventh hour, when voters were focused on the contentious presidential race.

Advertisement



“It was a pretty good strategy to wait until [six] days before Election Day, when everybody’s looking at the presidential election,” she said.


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@
globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.