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APNewsBreak: Mass. AG candidate skirts finance law

By Glen Johnson
AP Political Writer / September 21, 2010

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BOSTON—The upstart former prosecutor who shocked even the Massachusetts Republican Party by winning a write-in bid to be his party's nominee for attorney general did so, in part, with a race that skirted state campaign finance laws.

State campaign finance records show James McKenna of Millbury spent less than $1,600 in succeeding to become, apparently, the first candidate in Massachusetts political history to win a statewide nomination via a write-in campaign.

He will be on the Nov. 2 general election ballot against Martha Coakley. She was derided by Democrats across the country in January after she surrendered her party's traditional advantage in the state and lost to Republican Scott Brown in the special election to succeed the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Yet in an interview with The Associated Press, McKenna estimated he spent $5,000 on his race -- more than triple reported. The first-time candidate also did not account for the linchpin of his campaign -- the production of 100,000 stickers printed with his write-in information -- and appears to have paid that expense illegally.

"That was something which I put on my personal credit card," McKenna, 49, told the AP. "There should be a record. That was essentially a loan from me to the campaign."

Last month, the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance fined former Republican gubernatorial candidate Christy Mihos $70,000 for using personal and business funds -- as well as his personal credit card -- to pay more than $112,000 in expenses incurred during his unsuccessful 2010 campaign.

Candidates for statewide office must use a campaign checking account for expenses, which the bank then discloses on the state's campaign finance website, said agency spokesman Jason Tait.

Spokeswoman Laura Rigas said McKenna will be filing amended reports, adding in a statement: "Jim has taken immediate action to rectify the easily correctable filing error upon learning of it."

In the interview, McKenna also acknowledged a series of additional expenses that do not comport with the filings made in his bid to become the state's chief law enforcement officer.

McKenna said in the interview he succeeded in his campaign by traveling the state, speaking to the public and, in some cases, steering them to his campaign website. Besides distributing the 100,000 stickers, he said he mailed 16,000 postcards, 1,300 letters and "did some automated phone calling."

His reports show no expenditures for his campaign website, his Internet addresses, any electronic service providers or campaign meals and travel. And while they list $950 in postage, that is a fraction of published postal rates.

The standard postcard rate is 28 cents, and sending 16,000 at that price would cost $4,480. Rates could be reduced with bulk shipping, but not to less than $3,280, according to the U.S. Postal Service. The standard letter rate is 44 cents, and sending 1,300 at that price would cost $572. Bulk rates would not reduce it to less than $315, postal service rate charts show.

McKenna's reports also do not show any expenses for automated calls. In total, they show just $1,582.92 in expenses, including $42 in check-printing costs, $42.50 to a party planner and $525.62 to his campaign manager for unspecified expenses.

Tait, the campaign finance office spokesman, said some liabilities can exist for up to a year without being reported, but the aim of the campaign finance law and reporting system is to reveal donors and expenses as they are incurred so the public can examine them. Throughout his campaign, McKenna has been required to file reports every two weeks, the most recent of which covers expenses through Sept. 15 -- the day after the primary.

"We cleared everything; it was all properly done," said McKenna, a graduate of Boston College Law School who has worked in prosecutor offices in New Hampshire, Ohio, and Suffolk and Worcester counties. "That is something which we crossed every 't' and dotted every 'i' on."

He added that his treasurer has consulted with the state campaign finance office "throughout the whole process."

Tait said candidates are typically assigned an auditor with whom they are free to consult. He said state law prohibits him from revealing what, if any, advice was sought or given to the McKenna campaign.

Massachusetts Secretary of State William F. Galvin accentuated the scope of McKenna's achievement on Tuesday. In releasing the state's official primary results, he said McKenna garnered 27,711 write-in votes. He needed 10,000 to qualify for the general election ballot.

Galvin labeled it a "remarkable feat" and said he does not believe any write-in candidate has ever garnered that many votes.

The Massachusetts Republican establishment was embarrassed in May after failing to find a nominee to challenge Coakley, despite her loss.

Party leaders recruited Belmont Republican Guy Carbone to wage his own write-in campaign, but Galvin said he failed to qualify. Carbone recorded 9,505 signatures, short of both the mandatory threshold and far short of McKenna's total.

"It says to me that the voters are very much tired of what's going on on Beacon Hill," McKenna said in explaining his achievement. "They want a choice. And this became a grassroots campaign far beyond what reasonably could be expected."

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