Campaign group allied with Baker on charter schools, pot is fined for hiding donors

Governor Charlie Baker lobbied against legalization of recreational marijuana and for the expansion of charter schools.

By Globe Staff 

State campaign finance regulators have cracked down on a second political group aligned with Governor Charlie Baker, forcing the committee to divulge the donors behind the $1.168 million it spent supporting the governor’s 2016 ballot question campaigns.

On Tuesday, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance announced it had levied a $31,000 fine on Strong Economy for Growth (SEFG), charging the group violated finance laws in 2016 by not making public its contributors.


Also under the ruling, SEFG is barred from participating in Massachusetts politics in 2018.

SEFG, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that files as a social welfare charity and can legally spend funds on political causes, helped finance Baker-backed campaigns to promote the expansion of charter schools and defeat recreational marijuana legalization.

Organized under federal law, it is not required to disclose its source of funds on its tax returns. But Massachusetts campaign finance regulators say its political donations fall under the state campaign finance law that requires all names of donors to political causes to be filed with the OCPF.

“Based on the timing and amounts of the donations to SEFG and its subsequent contributions to the ballot question committees, OCPF determined that the organization violated the campaign finance law by disguising the identities of the original donors,’’ the agency said in a statement.

Some $990,000 of the SEFG’s funds went to support a ballot question to expand charter schools, a campaign in which Baker and close political advisers were deeply invested.


Another $188,000 went to fight a ballot question to legalize recreational marijuana.

In November 2016, voters rejected the charter school expansion and approved legalizing pot, a political setback for Baker.

Robert Haskins, the SEFG’s president, said the committee’s donations were legally consistent with group’s nonprofit mission, and the total amounts given to the campaigns were disclosed.

“Although all of the contributions to the two ballot committees were previously publicly disclosed, it was the determination of OCPF that some of the donors should have been publicly disclosed, and today we are happy to comply with that decision,” Haskins wrote in an e-mailed statement.

The governor’s reelection committee said Baker had nothing to do with the SEFG’s fund-raising activities.

“The governor was not aware of who contributed to this committee, and was not aware of or involved with its operations,’’ said campaign spokesman Billy Pitman.

Still, the group’s fund-raising and campaign activities involved close Baker political finance aides.

John Cook, the GOP fundraising guru who is most responsible for Baker’s campaign finance operations, was paid $134,365 for fund-raising consulting in 2016, the SEFG’s tax returns reveal. He received $72,500 in 2015 for raising $402,500 for the organization.

What’s more, a close associate of Cook, veteran GOP fundraiser Steve Roche, was paid $30,000 in 2014 for raising $300,000 for the SEFG, tax returns showed.

The governor dispatched his two top political advisers, Jim Conroy and Will Keyser, to run the charter school expansion proposal and to try to defeat the marijuana legalization plan.

Conroy was paid $147,000 for the two campaigns, campaign finance reports show.

Keyser received $135,000 for his work, which involved only the charter expansion proposal.

The state regulator’s ruling on the SEFG comes on the heels of its finding in September that a New York-based nonprofit, Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy, violated similar campaign finance laws by failing to disclose the names of donors who gave $15 million to support the charter school ballot question.

Almost all of the donors, a number of them giving $1 million or more, were from Massachusetts.

The OCFP forced Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy to disclose the donors’ names and pay a $426,000 fine.

Its investigation determined the group had broken campaign finance laws by intentionally hiding its donors’ identities by funneling the contributions to the Massachusetts political campaign through FESA.

The pro-charter school group, which under federal law is not required to identify its contributors, denies that it violated the state’s campaign finance statutes.

Baker’s political aides said at the time of the release of the OCPF ruling on the New York group that Baker was not involved in and was not aware of the secret fund-raising.

Among donors to the SEFG were Bay State Strategies Group and what was then Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications — whose clients lists are replete with the names of corporations with matters before the Baker administration and the Legislature. Each gave $10,000.

The largest donation came from another nonprofit organization, QXZ Inc. of Media, Pa., whose major donor is the wealthy pro-charter advocate Jeffrey Yass. He gave $600,000 to the SEFG in August 2016.

Andrew Balson, a former managing director at Bain Capital, donated $200,000 to the SEFG. He listed himself as “unemployed.”  The Romney for President political action committee gave $20,000.

Frank Phillips can be reached at