Politics

A Mass. regulator says a local political couple and a party chair may have violated campaign finance laws

“This is a blatant political hit job," said state Republican Party Chairman Jim Lyons.

Ryan and Stephanie Fattman, in 2014. Michele McDonald

A Massachusetts campaign finance regulator is referring a case of potential violations involving a Republican state senator, his wife who also holds elected office, and the state party’s chairman to the attorney general’s office.

The development came last week after state Sen. Ryan Fattman and Worcester County Register of Probate Stephanie Fattman, both of Sutton and elected Republicans, mounted a legal challenge to the probe that ensued in Suffolk Superior Court last month, according to The Boston Globe.

Michael Sullivan, who’s helmed the Office of Campaign and Political Finance since 1994, indicated he has evidence the Fattmans and Massachusetts Republican Party Chairman Jim Lyons violated campaign finance laws. Sullivan sent the matter to the attorney general’s office on Thursday to review for a possible lawsuit or criminal charges, the newspaper reports.

Sullivan, in letters to prosecutors, said evidence shows Ryan Fattman “may have violated” several regulations last year, according to the Globe. Also ensnarled in the probe is Anthony Fattman, the senator’s brother who chairs the Sutton Republican Town Committee; the Republican State Committee; and Brent Andersen, the former treasurer of the Republican State Committee.

Last month, a Suffolk Superior Court judge denied a request from Ryan Fattman to temporarily block state regulators from referring the investigation to prosecutors. The Fattmans, their family members, and the Sutton committee had sued Sullivan, arguing that his investigation is biased and “illegal,” and that he refused to disclose the evidence against them, the Globe reported.

Ryan Fattman and Lyons have denied wrongdoing and maintained on Thursday that Sullivan’s probe is a “political hit-job,” as Sullivan, who is retiring and set to be replaced this week, heads out the door.

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Here’s what we know about the situation:

The allegations and what’s happened so far

Last month, WBUR first reported an unusual move in which a Suffolk Superior Court judge closed a hearing to the public in the case between the Fattmans and Sullivan, at the request of the former.

Judge Christine Roach, however, ultimately denied the injunction filed by the Fattmans and others suing Sullivan, ruling that the plaintiffs had not proved Sullivan needed to provide “all the evidence,” nor that he needed to recuse himself from the investigation, the station later reported.

Roach said the plaintiffs had not demonstrated that they were harmed, because the state has not yet taken any action against them.

Roach also wrote that Sullivan provided the Fattmans and their fellow plaintiffs in the case a list of evidence he had, the newspaper reported.

“The regulations provide for an opportunity to be heard,” not to hand over every piece of evidence, Roach wrote. “The Director did not find facts, or make rulings of law. He merely performed his duties [to investigate].”

At the time, Fattman told WBUR he was accused of violating rules that prohibit campaign committees from donating over $100 to other candidates’ campaign committees, according to WBUR.

He argued that committees are able to make unlimited donations to political parties.

“Both parties do it all the time,” he said. “This is a common practice to help candidates get elected or re-elected.”

WBUR reported campaign finance data shows Fattman’s committee gave $25,000 to the Sutton Republican Town Committee in August and over $137,000 to the state Republican party during the fall.

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New details of the investigation surfaced on Thursday with Sullivan’s referral to state prosecutors.

Ryan Fattman was referred to investigators both in his role as state senate candidate and as treasurer of his wife’s campaign, according to the Globe.

Following his donation to the Sutton Republican Town Committee, the committee reported spending $41,000, with $33,253 of that sum spent in contributions to Stephanie Fattman’s campaign.

Stephanie Fattman was elected for a second, six-year term last November.

Ryan Fattman’s committee also donated over $137,000 to the Massachusetts Republican party, according to WBUR.

In February, Sullivan sent the Fattmans notice he planned to refer his probe to the attorney general, pointing to a rule that states candidates cannot make contributions to a political committee “on the condition or with the agreement or understanding” that the money must be sent to someone else’s campaign, according to the Globe.

State law lets candidates make unlimited amounts of donations to party committees, the outlet reported. The committees are in turn able to spend the money for specific candidates.

However, it remains unclear what specific donations formed the basis of Sullivan’s review. And as the Globe noted, also unknown is how far back into 2020 the probe reached.

Andersen did not seek reelection to the Republican State Committee in March 2020 and has not been party treasurer since March 4, 2020, according to the Globe.

What Ryan Fattman says

Ryan Fattman has denied any misconduct throughout the course of the probe.

“Sullivan’s actions today are based on his feelings and not facts. Sullivan’s actions today are based on politics and not the law,” Ryan Fattman said in a statement to The Boston Herald on Thursday, as Sullivan referred the matter to the attorney general. “From day one, Sullivan has shown he is a biased director that overreached his authority and didn’t care about the law.”

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Last month, he told WBUR his decision to file the lawsuit against Sullivan “was not taken lightly.”

“However, Sullivan’s troubling statements and actions — taken behind closed doors while falsely accusing us of violating campaign finance rules — left us strongly convinced that his investigation had nothing to do with the law, and everything to do with politics,” he said in a statement at the time.

Fattman, on Thursday, said he looks forward “to discussing this matter with the attorney general and reaching a resolution,” according to the Globe.

What Jim Lyons says

Like Ryan Fattman, Massachusetts Republican Party Chairman Jim Lyons has denied wrongdoing, and has alleged the probe has more to do with politics than the law.

“This is a blatant political hit job by Michael Sullivan as he walks out the door — a cowardly hit job,” Lyons said last week, according to the Herald.

Lyons suggested to the Globe that Ryan Fattman’s donations are the “same type of donations to political committees that Democrats have been making for generations.”

“Why isn’t Sullivan referring the Democrats to the attorney general’s office? The reason is because he doesn’t refer people to the attorney general’s office when they don’t violate the law, except in the case against Senator Fattman,” Lyons said. “Just as those folks did not violate the law, neither did Senator Fattman and neither did the MassGOP.”

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