During his days as a health insurance executive, Charles D. Baker Jr. was a big advocate of transparency. Consumers deserved as many details as possible about cost and quality, and, armed with them, would make smart, informed, cost-conscious decisions, he said.
As governor, he has continued along the same line. For example, last year, when Boston 2024 was working on its ill-fated bid to bring the Olympics here, Baker said the group should be transparent about its budget and operations.
“I’m a big believer in transparency,” he declared.
When it serves his purposes, yes, but other times, not so much. As the Globe’s Frank Phillips has reported, Baker and his team have recently undertaken two fund-raising operations that hardly seem transparent at all.
In the first, Team Baker raised more than $300,000 to fund efforts to consolidate his grip on the Massachusetts Republican State Committee. He used that money to field or bolster candidates battling the right-wingers who controlled many of the state committee seats. But Baker refuses to say whom that money was raised from or to detail how it was spent. If the governor tapped his usual donor list, however, he and his group were soliciting contributions from some people with business before his administration.
In the second instance, the Baker operation has been part of an elaborate scheme that shuffles money between federal and state committees in a way that sidesteps contribution limits and muddies the money trail.
The arrangement works this way: Individual donors give money in chunks of up to $43,400 (the federal limit) to the Massachusetts Victory Fund, a joint fund-raising project of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee and the Republican National Committee. The victory fund, a federal committee, then sends $10,000 (again, a federal limit) of each contribution to the state GOP. The rest of the money goes to the national party, which then makes regular disbursements to the state party. Since Baker became governor, those disbursements have totalled $525,000.
With Baker controlling the state committee, those funds are effectively paying for a significant part of his political operations and activities.
Why is that a problem? First, the arrangement disguises the amount to which the state committee has benefitted from one individual’s contributions. Second, this system arguably skirts the $10,000 federal limit on individual donations to state parties by washing the money through the national committee. (In addition, the dollars above the $10,000 limit could be construed as running afoul of a state law saying that federal contributions aren’t to be used to fund state candidates.)
The Baker camp insists they are complying with all relevant laws. “The governor religiously follows all public reporting requirements,” says political adviser Jim Conroy.
So what can be done? Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, says that the matter of dark money raised by a governor for a state committee could be addressed by a state law requiring disclosure of those contributions. Her organization will push for such a law, Wilmot says.
Would Baker back such an effort? His camp is noncommittal. “The governor would entertain any and all proposals to add transparency to the process,” Conroy said.
The fund-raising and funneling arrangement between the national and state Republican committees is much more complicated, and thus harder to address. Apparently beyond the reach of state law, it hasn’t triggered concerns at the Federal Elections Commission.
Still, Baker should stick with intent of the federal law and its $10,000 individual-donation limit and not use this tricky arrangement to nearly triple the amount the state GOP gets from wealthy special-interest donors.
That would be in keeping with the spirit of the law — and with the true spirit of transparency.
Unfortunately, in these instances, the only way Baker’s behavior can be called transparent is this: It is transparently self-serving.