Massachusetts ethics regulators said Friday that Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s top elections official, violated ethics law after he “prominently” put his name on voting signs and in voter information booklets distributed by his taxpayer-funded office, affording him “free positive publicity” amid his reelection bid in 2018.
In a letter released Friday, the state Ethics Commission said Galvin had “reason to know” that using his name on the publicly funded resources ahead of the election would give him “substantially valuable” and “unwarranted” political benefits as he successfully sought a seventh four-year term.
That included a voter information booklet his office mailed to every residential address in the state, which included a section touting the work of his Securities Division that referred to “Secretary Galvin’s office” 12 times on a single page. By contrast, the booklet simply refers to the “Secretary of the Commonwealth” on an adjacent page, the commission wrote.
His office also distributed 1,000 early voting signs to election officials throughout the state that the commission said prominently, and unnecessarily, featured his name, which gave the appearance and “likely the effect of campaign signs.”
The commission said it did not plan to launch a formal proceeding against Galvin and instead released what it called a “public education” letter in closing the case against him.
Galvin on Friday disputed that he knowingly violated any conflict of interest laws or that the actions were politically motivated. But the Brighton Democrat said the commission has the right to interpret the state’s ethics laws.
And the commission — made up of five members, including one appointed by the Galvin — did.
“The benefits to Secretary Galvin from the prominent inclusion of his name on the early voting signs and the free positive publicity in the Information for Voters booklet were unwarranted, and the Commission found reasonable cause to believe that Secretary Galvin violated the conflict of interest law by using his official position to secure them,” the commission said in a statement.
The decision is relatively novel. The commission’s application of the law to actions like Galvin’s haven’t been explained in a commission advisory, nor have they been the subject of any past decisions or formal opinions, it said in its six-page letter.
Still, the decision was a remarkable rebuke of the state’s longest-serving current statewide constitutional officer, who has faced questions in the past of benefiting politically from public resources.
Ethics regulators said the references to “Secretary Galvin’s office” in the voting information booklets mirrored those in the 2016 version, when Galvin was not a candidate on the ballot. Galvin said a “subordinate” included the text in the 2018 edition amid a scramble to fill pages that had been reserved for three ballot questions that were abruptly pulled by supporters.
“It certainly wasn’t politically motivated. It was an effort to fill the booklet,” Galvin said in a telephone interview, adding that he never talked to the employee who included it.
“In June 2018, I was pretty busy trying to get renominated. I wasn’t looking at everything,” he said.
Galvin told regulators that he also did not “personally review” the voting signs before they were printed. But he disputed that his name appeared prominently on them — as the commission described it — arguing they were the same signs his office distributed to clerks in 2016.
Many clerks, he said Friday, had requested them again last year. “We didn’t direct them to use them,” Galvin said.
Asked whether he would change the signs and booklets going forward, Galvin said he’d consider it “if I were a candidate” again.
“I can’t dispute their right to interpret the statute,” he said of ethics regulators. “And they’ve done so. But I would hope the same standard would apply to everyone else.”
Galvin has faced questions before about his use of public funds. In 2001, Republican leaders and others criticized him for tapping a pair of trust funds to pay for more than $100,000 in TV ads starring himself, including commercials encouraging voter registration and warning of securities fraud. At the time, he was moving toward a short-lived run for governor.
In 2018, he disciplined three workers in his office after a series of Globe stories raised questions about several employees performing political work on his behalf during weekdays or during normal business hours.
Galvin’s opponent in the 2018 election, Republican Anthony Amore, had also specifically raised issues over the voter information booklets and the repeated mention of Galvin’s name.
In its letter to Galvin, ethics regulators recognized it can be difficult to “draw the line between legitimate public information and self-serving political activity” when an elected official uses his or her name to promote an office’s work.
That question was on display in the 2012 trial of former state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who was charged with conspiring to use a $1.5 million, publicly funded lottery ad blitz to boost his struggling, and ultimately unsuccessful campaign for governor.
A jury deadlocked in December 2012, and Cahill agreed three months later to pay a $100,000 fine for violating state ethics law.
Pam Wilmot, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Massachusetts, said the commission has routinely “looked the other way” when similar allegations to those involving Galvin have surfaced in the past.
“This puts others on notice that this is not acceptable behavior,” she said.
Matt Stout can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.