Telegram & Gazette: Senate Votes to Close Finance Loopholes

By John Monahan
5/15/09

The Senate voted yesterday to close what some members called a campaign finance loophole used by Gov. Deval L. Patrick and the state Democratic Party by reducing the maximum party donation to $500.

That change, included in an ethics reform bill, would also boost penalties for bribery convictions, require closer accounting of campaign funds by candidates and ban all lobbyist donations to candidates. It was approved unanimously after numerous amendments were debated.

Differences between the Senate bill and a version passed by the House will be referred to a joint conference committee, which is expected to come up with a final bill to put before the House and Senate.

Senate backers of the provision to limit donations to political parties said it was directed at a practice started two years ago by Mr. Patrick and state party officials when they set up a special fund called the Seventy-First Fund for joint contributions to the governor and the party.

The fund was set up under an agreement whereby donors could write checks up to $5,500 to the fund, with a maximum allowed $500 going to the governor and the maximum allowed $5,000 going to the state party. The party in turn has used money for Mr. Patrick’s campaign operations.

The fund, named after the governor’s position as the 71st governor of the state, has taken in more than $1.2 million, with hundreds of thousands from the fund being used by the governor.

State Sen. Brian A. Joyce, D-Milton, argued to lower the party donation limit, saying the governor’s practice demonstrated “a gaping loophole” in the state’s campaign finance law.

“We think that is wrong,” he said, and lowering the donation limit to parties would cure the problem and that the limit, if adopted in law, would apply to all parties equally.

The Senate rejected a bid by Sen. James B. Eldridge, D-Acton, to impose a new pay-to-play ban that would have banned donations to state elected officials from state contractors.

He said afterward that a study of the donation ban, in effect in several other states including Connecticut, was included in the House version of the ethics reform bill.

Mr. Eldridge said he will push to have the study included in the final bill, even if neither the House nor the Senate was ready to take the step of adopting a ban on contractor donations in the current ethics legislation.

“I’m most happy that there is a ban on lobbyist donations,” Mr. Eldridge said of the bill that was adopted by the Senate.

The Senate rejected several amendments proposed by Republicans on lopsided party line votes, including a proposal to apply the state open records law to the governor’s office and the Legislature.

Minority Leader Richard R. Tisei, R-Wakefield, said Mr. Patrick has incorrectly relied on a 1997 Supreme Judicial Court ruling on a records case involving the governor to claim his office is exempt from the records disclosure law.

Mr. Tisei said many lawyers have advised him the governor’s interpretation is “a stretch” and that the state Supreme Judicial Court did not make the governor’s office exempt from the public records law.

The Senate rejected the amendment.