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.
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.