Local party committees: the Massachusetts version of Super PACs?

As you know, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision led to the creation of “Super PACs,” which are political committees to which individuals may contribute without limit, and which may in turn spend unlimited amounts of money on any federal election they choose.  Want to support a presidential candidate to the tune of $5 million, but can’t donate more than $2,500 directly to him?  No problem – just send the $5 million to the candidate’s Super PAC, and watch your money work.

You can’t do quite the same thing in Massachusetts, but, as some clever Republicans in central Massachusetts have figured out, you can come close.  State law of course allows the formation of ward, town, and city party committees.  Most of these committees are fairly small operations, and most of them presumably spend their time and resources helping out candidates who are running to represent the ward, town, or city in which the committee is located, as you might expect.  But as of now, there is actually no requirement that a local committee spend its money on elections related to that locality.  The only limitation is that expenditures must be for “the enhancement of the principle for which the committee was organized (e.g., the advancement of the particular party and its candidates).”

And, conveniently, the annual limit for individual contributions to local party committees is $5,000, ten times the paltry $500 that an individual can give directly to a candidate or to an ordinary PAC.

So the enterprising folks at the Marlborough Republican City Committee have figured out quite a clever business model.  They appear to have put the word out that large donations to their committee will be rewarded with generous spending on behalf of candidates who are, you know, related or otherwise close to the donors.  Donors apparently cannot require that their donations be used in a particular race, but there does seem to be a wink-wink system in play.  Case in point, as we recently discussed:

in addition to funneling about $40,000 directly to [freshman GOP Rep. Paul] Adams, the Adams family (specifically, his parents and brother) contributed an astonishing $30,000 to the Marlborough Republican City Committee in 2010 and 2011.  And, no doubt by sheer coincidence, it turns out that that Committee produced and mailed $27,807 worth of pro-Adams campaign brochures … even though Marlborough is about 40 miles away, and in a different county, from the district that Adams was running to represent.

Rep. Adams appears to be the biggest beneficiary of the Marlborough crowd’s scheme, but he is by no means the only one.

Besides Adams, the Marlborough Republicans in 2010 also supported Rep. James Lyons, who like Adams is a freshman Republican from Andover, and five other statehouse candidates…. [A]n analysis by The Eagle-Tribune shows that all but about $5,300 of the $173,000 it took in over the last five years came from a dozen eastern Massachusetts families and a Woburn political action committee.

Keiko Orall, a new GOP state rep from Lakeville (50 miles from Marlborough), also benefited handsomely.

To be sure, the chair of the Marlborough gang, Paul Ferro (well known to readers of RMG), insists that everything he is doing is legal – and he may well be right.  The Mass. Dems have asked for an investigation, so eventually OCPF will render its verdict on whether the Marlborough plan is legal.

But regardless of whether it is legal, it seems to me that it clearly should not be.  It looks to me as though Ferro has discovered a loophole in the law, and is driving the proverbial Mack truck through it.  Would it be so unreasonable for OCPF to opine, or (if necessary) for the legislature to legislate, that local party committees must spend their resources on races within that locality?  That, after all, would seem to be the purpose for allowing such committees to exist at all, so it doesn’t seem unreasonable to say that the “principle” for which a local committee is organized must by definition be to advance the prospects of candidates running in that locality.  The legislature might also want to revisit the contribution limits, as it seems to me to make little sense to permit an individual to donate only $500 to a candidate or a PAC, but $5,000 to a local party committee.

Honestly, I don’t love our extremely low $500 contribution limit, and I could get on board with an effort to raise it.  But what is far worse is clever schemes like the one Ferro has cooked up that take advantage of poorly-drafted laws so as to make it possible for large amounts of money to flood races like Paul Adams’, with no way to trace the money until after the fact.  This needs to be fixed.

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Discuss

24 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Shrewsbury RTC was a conduit for Polito

    Different situation, but these rules allowed Karyn Polito to raise $143,113 through the Shrewsbury RTC in 2010. http://www.efs.cpf.state.ma.us/SearchReportResults.aspx?cpfId=76500

    chrismatth   @   Mon 13 Feb 1:39 PM
  2. I'd go with revisiting the limits.

    Since a rep. from Andover votes on laws for the entire state, the Marlborough RTC may very well want to get a Republican elected there or anywhere else.

    • I'm sure they "want" that,

      but it’s not their job. The legislative charter of local committees should be limited to electing candidates in their locality. The state party’s job is to support candidates everywhere in the state; there’s no reason (other than exploiting loopholes) why local committees should be duplicating that work outside their area.

      • Aren't local committees local

        because there are voters in that locality, not because there are candidates running in that locality? Imagine a heavily Democratic district, there are still some very active Republicans there who want to influence the state government. If all they could do was mount losing campaigns in their own district, that’d be useless. But they can still be active and affect their state government and advance their local interests if they help candidates in other districts.

        I do agree that out of state money should be eliminated from state rep races.

        • I agree with d-g-c

          for the first paragraph. All state reps and state senators vote on legislation which impacts all of us.

          As for paragraph two… I’m going to have to think about that. I’m uncomfortable with the ban instinctively, but can’t quite figure out why.

          One way to reduce this SuperPAC effect is to reduce the $5000 limit to something smaller, say $2000.

  3. There's an issue around reporting as well.

    A city or town doesn’t have to report electronically below a certain amount, and I think if they claim to have no money then they don’t have to file at all.

    Contributor Joe Smith could write a check to the TC and then they could donate it, and then committee could give it, and let’s say the committee fails to report it.

    Candidate Mary Jones could get a check from the TC, and report it, but unless OCPF connects all the dots (and why should they), then the fact that the TC didn’t report it would probably be missed.

    OCPF should be made into a more searchable database and then citizens could scrutinize it and detect this kind of stuff.

  4. I disagree with David.

    IMO a local committee should be allowed to help fellow partisans throughout the state, though in most cases with limited resources town committee members will want their resources spent close to home.

  5. Can I give a concurring opinion?

    I agree that allowing city, town and ward committees the same exemption to the $500/year rule is a Super-PAC-sized loophole in state law, and one that is clearly being abused in this circumstance and ripe for future abuses, now that people can see how it can be manipulated.

    This is especially important because so many of these committees exist with just a few members, often meeting only once or twice a year, and are unaccountable to their party within the district. That kind of a committee would be a very easy target for what went on here.

    However, I disagree that local committees should be expected or legally obliged to only spend on local candidates. That’s probably what most of them will do, most of the time, but as someone who’s fairly active in my own town committee, I can safely say the interests of fellow committee members are as wide and divergent as active democrats registered on this site.

    Our committee has been exceptionally active in presidential races, leading a caravan of people to NH to volunteer in the ’08 general every weekend toward the end. We’ve been active in the Governor’s race and will almost certainly be active once the general election starts in the Senate race, calling on phones, knocking on doors and hosting coffees. We didn’t spend very much money in these campaigns, but we bought lawn signs and other things like that to pass out through the town. I don’t think that’s wrong or shouldn’t be allowed.

    It would be weird for a town, city or ward committee to get involved in a legislative race from outside the district, especially in a district that isn’t all that close by, but I don’t know how we would legislate against that.

    Furthermore, for Republicans, I could somewhat understand it, given that there are few cities and towns in play for their party and members may feel the need to reach out to surrounding districts to help build their party.

    I think the best way to deal with it is to just make sure these local committees can’t be used in the way that they have to make them such an alluring target for out-of-district state rep and senate seats.

    That’s best done by capping donations to what candidates or PACs themselves can collect in this state ($500). I’d also consider including provisions in the law meant to guard against committees acting in this way.

    At bare minimum, new guidelines could be created to require donors to disclose when they’re related to anyone running for office in the State of Massachusetts, and making sure those disclosures are filed with the state and put online. Furthermore, legislation should be drafted requiring committees to disclose any donation they receive over $500 within a week of receiving it, or within 24 hours if it’s within a month of the election.

    Better yet, figure out a form of legislation that can be drafted — if it doesn’t already exist — that would make it illegal for local committees and friends and relatives of local candidates to coordinate in such a way that it would be allowed for those friends and relatives use those local committees as launderers.

    So, yeah, I’m with you on getting rid of the $5000 donations, or at least creating some strong legislation to guard against what happened here, but I don’t think a straight ban on spending any money outside of local races is or should be a part of the answer.

    RyansTake   @   Mon 13 Feb 5:58 PM
    • "I don’t know how we would legislate against that."

      Pretty easy: a local committee can’t make expenditures on a race where the winner would not represent at least one person who lives in the locality. That would let local committees spend all they want on races for Governor, Senate, and President, as well as more local races, but would prevent the kind of abuse that’s happening in Marlborough.

  6. David, I'll make you a deal...

    …outlaw the unlimited contributions Unions can make to Democrats, and we can talk about Party Committees.

    Take Roger Brunelle, the Democratic Opponent to Keiko Orrall. He received donations of between $1,000 to $14,800(!!!) (x2 to X29.6 your beloved $500 Limit) directly from Unions. Not Union PACs, not a local Party Committee, but directly from the treasury of a Union. $26,800 in total. Those are the true “Super PACs” of local Mass Politics. No reporting of where the that money came from at all. That doesn’t include the additional $17,541.73 Unions spent on Brunnelle as “Independent Expenditures”

    http://www.efs.cpf.state.ma.us/SearchReportResults.aspx?name=brunelle

    But I doubt you have a problem with the definition of a “Special Interest” directly giving almost $27,000 to a candidate, because, after all, he’s was a Democrat.

    My Local Committee reported all of our expenditures, and who gave us money, in some cases up to 5 years ago. All our 2010 activity has been on the web for 13 months for all to see.

    I’m glad that my committee effectively spends it’s donors money. We’re not the good little republicans Liberals Love who don’t ever help our fellow Republicans in Massachusetts, or worse, spend all our funds on one candidate. But in 2010, JUST the Democratic State Committee Raised $4.8 MILLION. That’s more than X50 what my committee raised and spent in 2010.

    Unions did 7 Mailings vs. our GOP state Rep (now out Mayor) in 2008, and 7 more vs. our GOP State Senate Candidate (now our State Rep) that same year. That would have cost tens of thousands of dollars. The field is stacked vs. Republicans, and when ONE local Republican Committee actually raises more than $100, and actually get’s Republicans Elected, of course John Walsh caterwauls. He doesn’t like it when someone, anyone, tries to punch back! I will continue to use the all the tools legally available to my committee to help elect Republicans and I hope I can inspire more Local Republican Committees, many of whom, are, sadly non-existant, to do the same.

    BTW, all these people who say we haven’t been helping our Local Republican candidates here in Marlborough, this is news to our local Candidates, including the First Republican Mayor in at least 30 years, and our first Republican State Rep in at least 50 years.

    • oops! Missed $12,000!

      Was only counting donations over $1,000. Ton more from Unions in smaller donations ($100-$500), both from their PAC’s and directly from Treasuries. So let’s see, less than $10,000 from my Committee vs. $56,000 from Out-of-District Unions. This is almost comical in it’s absurdity.

    • I'll take that deal,

      as long as by “talk about party committees” you mean “outlaw out-of-district expenditures and limit donations to $500,” as I suggested in my post.

      Surprised? I’ll bet you are.

      • If we're talking about to CAMPAIGN COMMITTEE"S.

        I’ll gladly give up my $150,000 and the MassGOP’s $3 Million raised in 2010 & 2011 if the Democrats give up Their $5.4 Million, and the millions more from Unions. I’m happy to de-fund your side.

        But you know as well as I that the Democratic Party, who wrote the law so Unions could buy elections, isn’t going to take Unions massive $$$ advantage away.

        BTW, in the Commone vs. Adams Race, Unions and the DSC spent $41,000 in support of Commane, but the $27,000 we spent is making headlines. Not at all feeding the Liberal Media Bias critic.

  7. How'd the GOP beat us at our own game?

    Quick notes:

    1) “But as of now, there is actually no requirement ” More precisely: been that way for quite some time.

    2) Let us remember that it is the Democratic legislature that dominates campaign finance law making here in Massachusetts, the very Democratic membership that most associated with this site strongly support.

    The chagrin of Democrats is laughable: “How’d the GOP beat us at our own game?”

    Jack Gately
    jackgately.com

  8. To David's question of why.

    Ultimately, we are all in this together. If my DTC were in a town that was going to vote Dem no matter what (alas I don’t have that luxury, but for the sake of argument…) I would want my town to assist other towns in electing Democrats. Especially when we are talking leadership positions, if the Speaker for example were GOP and with the power the MA Speaker has, I would want my DTC to have the option of funnelling money to his opponent, even if the district from which the Speaker is elected is on the other side of the state. I think Ryan makes a good case in his “concurring opinion” comment above.

    Oh, and David, can you address the charge in another comment that unions can give unlimited money directly? I thought sure that was illegal, or am I confusing state and federal law?

    • Re unions giving,

      yes, I’ve confirmed with OCPF that unions are permitted to donate directly to political campaigns, up to $15,000 (as Paul Ferro shows in his comment above). That is entirely different from the federal side, where both unions and corporations are barred from making direct donations. I’ll have more to say about this shortly.

  9. The unions aren't limited with in-kind contributions

    It’s their PACs that are limited to $500 giving money directly to the candidate.

    So they can pay for mailings, pay for people to canvass, etc.

    It’s a considerable advantage to Democratic candidates in MA, as Mr Ferro has pointed out above. In many races the in-kind expenditures by unions were greater than what some of the Republican candidates spent themselves.

    • You are incorrect...

      …as David confirms above.

      I’m OK with Unions forming PAC’s, because that’s a level playing field. But you can’t cloak yourself in righteousness about me raising at maybe $5,000 a pop (that I have to report) when Unions can give $15,000 directly to a campaign.

  10. Correction - not 100% sure if they are limited, but if they are the number is probably pretty high

    So they are not effectively limited, and it would of course be per union (or other entity).

  11. What's the problem here, exactly?

    If I give to a partisan town committee (which I wouldn’t, in general — maybe cough up for an event to be a good sport), I would assume that money goes to party concerns. So, if there’s a state rep race, I’d assume they’d kick some to that, but I’d expect the majority to go to upper ticket races.

    • I don't quite understand your comment.

      Are you saying that if you donate a few bucks to the Marlborough City Committee, you’d expect that committee to spend the money on state rep races many miles away from Marlborough? Or that you’d expect them to spend money on statewide (e.g. Gov, Senate) races in addition to the local races that directly affect Marlborough? If the latter, I agree; if the former, I don’t.

      • I'm not sure

        I meant Gov/Senate whatever, but the GOP (around here) needs to build more, so it doesn’t seem fair to say they can’t invest in state rep races.

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