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Opinion | Barbara Madeloni

Not such a ‘nothingburger’ after all

State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education chairman Paul Sagan (at right) in November 2015. Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker may find himself choking on a “nothingburger” as revelations have come to light about the massive flood of dark money into last fall’s pro-charter-school ballot campaign.

Baker should act quickly to clean up the mess by firing Paul Sagan, chairman of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and a major “anonymous” contributor to Question 2, the failed initiative to lift the cap on charter schools.

Last fall, Baker dismissed as a “nothingburger” concerns about a $100,000 contribution to the ballot campaign from Sagan, his appointee to head the education board.

That donation was not anonymous. The controversy back then was that Sagan, whose board is charged with overseeing all public education in the state, had clearly thrown in his lot with the quasi-private charter schools despite strong opposition from parents, educators, civil rights groups, and student organizations concerned about the negative impact that charters were having on students attending district public schools.

What the public did not know at that time was that five days earlier, Sagan had given an additional $496,000 to a front organization that was also backing Question 2, Families for Excellent Schools — Advocacy. FESA funneled Sagan’s donations — and millions of dollars more — to the Yes on 2 campaign without disclosing the names of the wealthy contributors. That was illegal.


On Sept. 11, the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance released a “disposition agreement” with FESA requiring the group to pay a record-breaking $426,000 fine for contributing funds “in a manner intended to disguise the true source of the money.” FESA was also required to dissolve as an organization.

Did Sagan know that FESA was going to hide his identity?

So far, he has dodged reporters’ questions about that, instead referring them to an ambiguous statement: “I trusted the organizations I supported to handle their fund-raising and disclosures appropriately.”


Did Baker know about Sagan’s anonymous half-million-dollar contribution to the campaign?

Here’s how AP reporter Steve LeBlanc described the governor’s answer: “Asked if Sagan told him last year about the $500,000 donation on top of the $100,000 donation, Baker said he could not recall ‘off the top of my head.’ ”

Why does all this matter? Campaign finance laws have been greatly eroded in recent years, but the ones that still exist are crucial to public integrity. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously stated, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

In the case of ballot questions in Massachusetts, it is vital for voters to know who is funding the campaigns that are trying to influence their opinions on important public policy matters. “Follow the money” is sound advice where such issues are concerned. In the case of the campaign supporting Question 2, the money was a record-shattering $26 million, nearly twice as much as opponents spent.

We now know that a huge amount of the funding for the failed campaign came from out-of-state billionaires, including the Waltons of Walmart fame; from wealthy investors such as Seth Klarman, who gave $3.3 million in dark money via FESA, and Amos Hostetter Jr., who gave just over $2 million via FESA at the same time he was lobbying the Baker administration to block the construction of a hotel next to his office; and from Baker appointees Sagan and Mark Nunnelly, the state’s chief information officer.


It was well known throughout the campaign that the vast majority of the funding for the No on 2 effort came from teachers unions, whose members were alarmed that lifting the cap on charters could siphon billions of dollars from the public schools. They also objected to the way so many charters undermine the common good by failing to serve as many high-needs students as district schools. Those contributions were made in broad daylight by the tens of thousands of educators who work in our public schools, colleges and universities.

We may never find out if Sagan knew that his donations would be kept secret by FESA, but we do know he failed to be forthright when he had the opportunity — when the governor was dismissing his other contribution as a “nothingburger.” For this lack of candor, Paul Sagan has got to go.

Barbara Madeloni is president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.