Complaint seeks to force MassFiscal donor disclosure

DESI SMITH/Staff file photo. State Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, one of 29 state lawmakers targeted last year by the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance. 

BOSTON — State lawmakers who say they’ve been targeted recently in their districts by the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance plan to call on state regulators Tuesday to force the non-profit group to register as a political committee and disclose its donors.

A complaint, obtained by the State House News Service and signed by Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton, and Rep. Natalie Higgins, D-Leominster, cites an alliance mailer sent to Leominster voters that was critical of Higgins. Letters were also sent to selectmen and city councilors in Eldridge’s district knocking his support for the Safe Communities Act and urging local officials to take positions against the bill, which is an immigration law enforcement bill pending on Beacon Hill.

The Massachusetts Democratic Party joined the lawmakers in filing the complaint with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, which asks the independent agency to conduct an investigation and also to fine MassFiscal for failing to disclose the top five donors behind the flier campaign.

The complaint alleges MassFiscal is improperly concealing its donors while “distributing communications for the purpose of influencing Massachusetts elections.”

In response,  MassFiscal blasted some politicians and liberal interest groups for trying to “use campaign finance law as a weapon.” 

According to the complaint, MassFiscal has also delivered fliers in 29 House districts and nine Senate districts that were critical of lawmakers who approved legislation giving themselves and their colleagues steep raises at the outset of the 2017-2018 session, among them Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante who represents Gloucester, Rockport, and Essex.

MassFiscal is organized as a 501(c)(4), a non-profit designation that has reportedly grown in popularity among groups that favor keeping donors private. The group previously shielded the identity of its donors by never explicitly advocating for the election or defeat of a specific candidate.

Free speech, donors

Following passage of 2016 law that mandated greater reporting, the group starting using mail to direct voters online to its legislative scorecard, characterizing the voter contact as educational and not meant to influence an election.

The group’s leaders also said it would avoid electioneering communications, which are defined by the Office of Campaign and Political Finance as those that refer to a “clearly identifiable” candidate and are distributed within 90 days of an election in which that candidate is running.

Paul Craney, of the Mass Fiscal Alliance, said the group has a “longstanding practice to work with OCPF on all our advocacy and educational campaigns before they are published.”

“While MassFiscal has enjoyed a healthy working relationship with OCPF, I would be remiss if I did not mention that freedom of speech and association, our most fundamental American rights, are perpetually under attack from those who seek to use campaign finance law as a weapon,” Craney said in a prepared statement. “These rights are perpetually under attack from powerful politicians, bureaucrats, unions, and far-left interest groups.” 

“It’s folks like Eldridge and Higgins who demonstrate why our campaign finance regulations need to be crystal clear, fair, and completely objective. For Eldridge and Higgins, silencing the opposition is easier than debating important policy publicly. MassFiscal will fight unfair regulations that tip the scales for or against a particular point of view,” Craney said. 

‘Group hits only Dems’

In their complaint, Eldridge and Higgins note alliance materials urge voters to call State House offices and lobby lawmakers to change their positions.

“MassFiscal specifically aimed at only Democratic state representatives and senators up for re-election with a targeted leaflet campaign designed to influence voters,” the complaint says, alleging a “persistent concerted campaign” against Democrats. 

“MassFiscal distributes what it describes as ‘educational fliers,’ which purport to be informational pamphlets that reveal legislators’ voting history,” the complaint says. “In reality, these fliers skew the facts surrounding legislation and selectively highight issues MassFiscal perceives to be damaging to the Democratic Party.”

The lawmakers, noting the recent MassFiscal communications were timed to coincide with special legislative elections, say “there is no other reasonable interpretation of these fliers and letter other than an appeal to vote against Democratic candidates.”

MassFiscal last week testified against proposed OCPF rules governing when the names and addresses of donors to 501(c)(4) and other tax-exempt entities must be publicly disclosed, alleging the agency was proposing to “give itself broad discretion to require donor disclosure.”

The group also supports a lawsuit targeting what it calls the “union loophole” that enables unions to give at amounts beyond the individual limit of $1,000.

 

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