Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez on Tuesday called for an investigation into Governor Charlie Baker’s ties to a pro-charter-school New York group that this week incurred the largest fine in state campaign history for its activity in last year’s election.
Gonzalez also called for the departure of the state’s top education official, who donated nearly $500,000 to a ballot effort that would have significantly raised the annual cap on the number of charter schools. Baker supported the pro-charter initiative.
“What did Baker know about this and was Baker soliciting donations to go to this out-of-state organization?” Gonzalez said in a phone interview. “Were members of his administration inappropriately involved in soliciting these donations?”
Asked who should investigate, Gonzalez replied, “The attorney general, the inspector general, whoever the right investigatory agency is.”
But Gonzalez’s own campaign also has ties to the pro-charter group. In his call for an investigation, Gonzalez referenced two top Baker political aides who helped lead the effort. He did not mention that a senior official in his own campaign also worked for the group. The ballot measure lost in November by more than 24 percentage points.
The consulting firm owned by Sydney Asbury, Gonzalez’s senior campaign adviser, was paid $50,000 by Great Schools Massachusetts, the local arm of Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, according to campaign finance records. Gonzalez’s campaign manager said Asbury “had no role in fund-raising for the campaign.”
The group, also known as FESA, was fined $426,467 Monday after campaign finance regulators concluded the nonprofit illegally shielded its donors’ identities. Two contributors, who together gave more than $770,000, now hold senior posts in the Baker administration.
One, Paul Sagan, is chairman of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Sagan, a technology executive appointed by Baker to helm the education panel in 2015, contributed $496,000.
“Paul Sagan should resign, immediately, or the governor should remove him,” said Gonzalez, who was state budget chief during the Patrick administration. “The facts suggest he intentionally tried to hide $500,000 in donations to this ballot campaign while he was chair of the state board of education.”
The governor, a vocal charter school proponent, appeared in one of the campaign’s ads, urging support for the measure, known as Question 2.
In a separate statement earlier Tuesday, Gonzalez charged Baker with “continuous disregard for the letter and the spirit of campaign finance laws.”
“The fact that an out-of-state shell organization was used to funnel huge, undisclosed donations from wealthy supporters of Governor Baker to fund his charter school agenda raises a number of questions and concerns,” Gonzalez said in the press release.
The state Office of Campaign and Political Finance said that FESA had violated the law by soliciting checks expressly to back Question 2, thereby crossing the line between nonprofits not engaged directly in political activity. Such activity, regulators said, requires disclosure.
On Monday, Baker told reporters that the outside group, not his aides, had violated the law.
“Paul Sagan and Mark Nunnelly both complied with all state laws with respect to this,” Baker said.
On Tuesday, asked about Gonzalez’s charges, a Baker spokeswoman referred questions to the state Republican Party.
GOP spokesman Terry MacCormack said in an e-mail: “Only a politician like Jay Gonzalez would try to score cheap political points by denigrating individuals who are working to provide children in struggling school districts with the quality education they deserve.”
Under the agreement with FESA announced Monday, OCPF agreed not to refer the group to the attorney general or “any other governmental agency.” But the state’s attorney general, Maura Healey, could decide on her own to investigate.
Healey aides did not respond to requests for comment.
Democrats are expecting to be outspent heavily by Baker and his allies in the 2018 election, giving them a political incentive to muddy the campaign finance waters around him. A summer fund-raising push built his political operation’s war chest to around $10 million, and he has no primary challenger to tie up funds for the first leg of the campaign.
Further, Democrats have been largely unable to lay a glove on the popular governor. Polls show Baker with huge leads over his prospective Democratic challengers. Along with Gonzalez, Newton Mayor Setti Warren and environmentalist and entrepreneur Robert Massie are also running.
The state Democratic Party had pounced on the campaign finance fine Monday night, calling for the resignations of Sagan and Mark Nunnelly, Baker’s chief of technology services and security and a former Bain Capital executive. In a statement, party chairman Gus Bickford accused the two of “illegal contributions” and called for Baker to “come clean.”
Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.