For the third time in less than a year the Office of Campaign and Political Finance has busted a Massachusetts corrupt dark money front; in this case, Strong Economy for Growth. SEFG ran money for 2016’s charter school and marijuana ballot questions. Had SEFG’s (and its dark money allies) positions prevailed and all this illegality been subsequently revealed, the mortal crisis facing Massachusetts ballot procedures would be apparent to all. Anti-charter and pro-marijuana advocates would be in the streets.
You can read the Disposition Agreement between OCPF and SEFG here and access the list of once-hidden now-naked contributors here. Early last year, OCPF reached a Disposition Agreement with Question 1’s Horse Racing Jobs and Education Committee. In September OCPF imposed the death penalty on dark money front Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy. In the era of dark money, OCPF’s work is never done.
Who’s next? Why not Families for Excellent Schools Inc., the dark money illegitimate sibling of FESA? FESI was the largest contributor to FESA and through it to Great Schools Massachusetts in 2016, and its donors have not been held to account. It’s a matter of lifting another layer of the Russian nesting doll. Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, winner of the 2015 award for fraud in Massachusetts Politics and a beard for the political ambitions of Rick Green deserves to fall. A likely future operation to face the OCPF chopping block is the Bay State Action Fund, aka FESA Lite. Most deserving of all, based on past performance, is Stand for Children Massachusetts.
But the FESA shut down and resurrection is an indicator that merely closing dark money operations isn’t enough. Once one operation is shuttered another opens. SEFG is banned from Massachusetts politics for 2018, but there’s always Strong Economy for Massachusetts Inc. which files with the FEC and the SuperPAC Strong Economy for Massachusetts IEPAC. The money will keep rolling and the dark money organizers will shift to another vehicle. As with FESA, this all seems to be tied up with Governor Baker and his top political aides. On that topic I highly recommend the reporting of Frank Phillips in the Boston Globe, Matt Stout in the Boston Herald, and Schira Schoenberg at masslive.com.
Without disclosure we wouldn’t know that Paul Sagan secretly funneled $496,000 in dark money through FESA to GSM. We’d never even have heard of Andrew Balson. OCPF’s actions disclosed that Balson gave $300,000 to FESA and $200,000.00 to SEFG, a total of a half million laundered to Great Schools Massachusetts. Balson is also on record for giving $250 to the suspicious Mekka Smith campaign.
According to the Disposition Agreement with SEFG, OCPF tried to contact SEFG’s donors and they “either did not successfully rebut (the) presumption” that they had “reason to know” their donations would be hidden, or they refused to return OCPF’s calls. In analyzing Paul Sagan’s defense I wrote that my interpretation of OCPF regulations is that “a donor does have the responsibility to make sure that he or she does not make a donation for the ‘purpose of disguising the true origin of the contribution.’” That would apply to all the FESA and SEFG donors. It suggests an extensive conspiracy to evade Massachusetts campaign finance laws. Moreover, the third 2016 dark money operation to be brought to heel shows that the state’s ballot measure procedures are in crisis. Imagine if Question 2 had passed, or Question 4 had failed, and in the next year this level of illegality and corruption was revealed. So it’s time for OCPF and Attorney General Maura Healey to investigate not just the temporary dark money fronts, but their permanent plutocratic patrons.
I’ll include the usual disclaimer below, but let me say here that I’m not an education scholar. I’m trying to be a money scholar. So as with Willie Sutton who said he robbed banks because that’s where the money is, I’ve been following the charters matter because that’s where the money is.
But the SEFG group has been in charters, marijuana, and the campaigns of Charlie Baker, Scott Brown, and Richard Tisei. Bay State Action Fund claims a broad field of endeavor. That gives me the opportunity to say that this vast plutocratic cabal is not about schools. It’s about decimating unions, dismantling government, and lowering taxes on the wealthy. It’s ultimately about our democracy.
I’ll be developing these themes in the next year. As always, thank you for reading. And Happy New Year.
The Washington Post recently adopted a new slogan: “Democracy dies in darkness.” I agree.
[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money (and other things). I don't write about education policy.]