Contributions to political figures and elected officials can be dicey when you are also looking for favorable decisions from the government agencies they control.
That’s what one of Massachusetts’ wealthiest residents, Amos Hostetter Jr., stepped right into — more than $2 million worth of bad timing and a smack of terrible optics.
Hostetter, a former cable television magnate, donated just over $2 million to the campaign to get a sweeping pro-charter school ballot question approved in the November 2016 election. Governor Charlie Baker was deeply invested in the campaign and appeared in advertisements for it.
Hostetter’s donations were made at a time he and others were lobbying the Baker administration to block the construction of a hotel next to his harborside office.
Hostetter said his work against “an ill-conceived development on Lewis Wharf” and his donations to Baker and to his cause were not related.
“If there is an occasional overlap in timing between these varied interests, it is entirely coincidental,’’ he said in a statement to the Globe.
He noted he has been longtime advocate for charter schools. And indeed, Hostetter and his wife, Barbara, donated to a pro-charter campaign effort in October 2009, state campaign finance records show.
But in this case, his name and those of other donors were kept secret until this week. State regulators found his and other donations had been funneled into the pro-charter campaign through the New York-based Families for Excellent Schools — Advocacy, a nonprofit that is not required to list its donors.
It all went down just as he was pleading with the Baker administration’s environmental agencies to rule against a large hotel development next to his office on Lewis Wharf. His lawyers had filed a 48-page letter to Baker’s environmental regulators laying out a series of reasons for them to reject the hotel project.
Six weeks after the proposal was unveiled in early June 2015, Hostetter and his wife, who have a history of donating almost exclusively to Democrats until recently, each contributed $1,000 to the Republican Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito.
A year later, as the Department of Environmental Protection was getting ready to make its preliminary decision, Hostetter sent a $1 million check to FESA. A month after the DEP made an initial ruling in September against the hotel project, he sent another $1 million — and another $25,000 check just days before the election. Those funds and millions more were bundled and sent to a state pro-charter campaign.
Thanks to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, we now can see these secret donations. The state regulators fined the FESA $426,466 — the agency’s largest fine ever — and forced it to reveal the contributors’ names. OCPF ruled the group was using its status as a nonprofit to block public scrutiny of its donors, who gave a total $15 million to help the ballot question that eventually was rejected.
Hostetter did not in his statement address other questions put to him, namely: who solicited the money from him that he donated to FESA, whether he knew if Baker was aware of his donations, and if was he told by FESA that the donations would not be made public.
Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.