Ed Markey is just now returning fossil fuel-linked donations. Joe Kennedy quietly did, too.

"We’ve been busy as heck."

Boston, MA., 12/31/2019, US Rep Jo Kennedy III, and Senator Markey before Democratic candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at the Old South Church on New Year's Eve. 


Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Rep. Joe Kennedy III and Sen. Ed Markey before a New Year's Eve speech by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who they have both endorsed for president, in Boston. –Suzanne Kreiter / The Boston Globe

Sen. Ed Markey’s re-election campaign says it refunded $46,900 in fossil fuel-linked donations on New Year’s Eve, after originally pledging in October to do so.

The campaign says the plan all along was to return the contributions by the end of the three-month quarterly filing period, even if it did leave some donors wondering about the expected refunds.

We’ve been busy as heck,” John Walsh, Markey’s campaign director, said Thursday.

The Massachusetts senator, who has spent decades in Congress advocating for the environment and co-introduced the Green New Deal last year, is one of nearly 2,000 political candidates across the country — including almost all the Democratic presidential primary candidates — who have signed a “No Fossil Fuel Money” pledge. Sponsored by the climate action group Oil Change U.S., the pledge prohibits signees from accepting campaign contributions over $200 from executives, political groups, or lobbyists in the oil, gas, or coal industries.

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Markey’s campaign had believed they were in compliance. However, Oil Change U.S. clarified in October that the pledge also ruled out donations from lobbyists at outside firms who had represented fossil fuel companies, even if they primarily worked with other clients. And as MassLive reported at the time, this provision meant a number of campaign donations were in conflict of the pledge.

After the realization, Markey reportedly instructed his campaign to return a total of $46,900 to 28 donors who did not meet the pledge requirements.

“Our pledge and intention is to operate with the highest standard of donation integrity,” Walsh told MassLive.

The Malden Democrat’s two primary challengers, Rep. Joe Kennedy III and Shannon Liss-Riordan, have also taken the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

And Kennedy’s campaign confirmed Thursday that it had also refunded a total of $22,500 to 20 different donors who were found to be in violation the pledge.

According to Federal Election Commission data, nearly $9,000 of those refunds took place in mid- to late-September, around the time the Massachusetts congressman officially announced his Senate primary challenge. The refunds also include $6,300 from nine lobbyists that the campaign said it only recently identified and returned Tuesday after an inquiry from Boston.com (FEC filings show that a number of lobbyists, including several whose donations violated the pledge, gave money to both Kennedy and Markey).

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“Congressman Kennedy takes compliance with the fossil fuel pledge seriously,” Kennedy spokeswoman Emily Kaufman told Boston.com. “As soon as the problematic nature of these donations came to the campaign’s attention, we refunded them.”

Markey’s campaign took a bit longer to issue the refunds.

More than two months after the pledge to return the $46,900, several lobbyists whose donations to the Markey campaign violated the pledge told Boston.com that they had neither heard from or received refunds from the campaign. Asked about the apparent delay, Walsh told Boston on Thursday that all of the refund checks had been sent out before the end of the quarter. He added that the checks were dated Dec. 31 — the last day of the period — and that the campaign was still in the process of contacting those to whom money was being returned.

“I told [the campaign finance team] to do them by the end of the quarter and that’s what they did,” Walsh said.

Walsh explained that the approach was intended to ensure that the campaign did a thorough round of vetting, after they were first notified of the pledge conflicts in October (Walsh said Friday that the $46,900 figure remained accurate; any refunds should appear on the campaign’s year-end FEC filing, which is due at the end of the month). In a race in which all three sides are slated to spend millions, Walsh said the campaign didn’t gain any advantage from waiting to give back $46,900.

David Turnbull, a spokesman for Oil Change U.S., told Boston.com that the group was “glad to hear that the refunds have been processed in line with Senator Markey’s stated intention to do so,” noting that the campaign “quickly responded” when the donations were initially flagged.

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An FAQ page on the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge says that, if notified of a violation, candidates have “one week to return the contribution(s) in question” in order to remain on the pledge. But Turnbull said the Markey campaign’s actions were in that general spirit.

“We believe that Senator Markey lived up to those guidelines even if the actual funds did not get transferred immediately for what I presume would be logistical and not substantive reasons,” he said.

From the so-called People’s Pledge to the candidates’ rejection of corporate PAC money, campaign finance has been an early focus in a 2020 primary contest with few major policy disagreements. Kennedy has cited a need to “match the urgency of the moment” as the reason for his primary challenge, which has angered some climate activists and progressives.

Kennedy skipped a November debate about climate change and the environment over objections to its timing, but another debate with all three candidates is scheduled for Feb. 18.
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