Voting in Massachusetts.

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Massachusetts Imposes Record Fine On 2016 Charter School Supporters

September 12, 2017

Barbara Howard: It is the biggest campaign finance settlement in state history. Do you remember that ballot measure last fall to lift the cap on the number of charter schools in Massachusetts? It turns out that the group that collected money to support that measure now has to pay a half million dollar settlement after being penalized by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance. With us in the studio is WGBH News Contributor Maurice Cunningham, a UMass Boston political science professor who's been tracking so-called dark money in last year's charter school campaign. Thanks for coming in Maurice.

Maurice Cunningham: Great to be here.

Barbara Howard: Well, first it should be noted that despite the large sums of money that this group poured into the campaign, the measure to lift that charter school caps, it was rejected last fall by the voters. Now this group that pushed hard for the measure — the group that got itself in trouble here — it called itself "Families for Excellent Schools." But was it really families for excellent schools?

Maurice Cunningham: It wasn't really families the way we think of it. In fact, it was backed by a group of billionaires and near billionaires — plutocrats putting millions of dollars of their own money behind this.

Barbara Howard: Well, what exactly did this group "Families for Excellent Schools" do wrong?

Maurice Cunningham: Well, what they did was they hid the actual contributors, and the OCPF, the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, found two important things. One, "Families for Excellent Schoolswas a political committee and needed to register with OCPF. And two, that they had been hiding the true identities of the contributors. That's illegal in Massachusetts.

Barbara Howard: That's a violation of state campaign finance law as I understand.

Maurice Cunningham: That is correct.

Barbara Howard: OK, so who is behind the group "Families for Excellent Schools"?

Maurice Cunningham: Mostly financial service money, a lot from Massachusetts, a lot more from New York and other states — people who could write a check for a million dollars at the drop of a hat, and so all of them wrote several million dollar checks.

Barbara Howard: Well, that's what struck me when I looked at this list. Now the "Families for Excellent Schools" as part of this settlement had to disclose a real list of donors who put nearly $20 million into the campaign to lift the charter caps — and we will post that list to our web site — but a few things on that list pop out … what you said, that some were from out of state. Also the size of the donations and the fact that the group itself, "Families for Excellent Schools," [is] not local. It lists a New York City address. There were also other out-of-state donors. A member of the Wal-Mart family from Arkansas comes to mind, but there are also some well-known local investors. We see Bain Capital on the list founded by Mitt Romney and others. Why would these groups be so interested in lifting the cap on charter schools?

Maurice Cunningham: I wish we could ask them directly, but unfortunately they hide. That's what we know from this. However, I think it has to do with an animosity toward government, an animosity toward unions, particularly teachers unions, which advocate for greater funding for things like schools. Ultimately, it's about their taxes.

Barbara Howard: Well, I understand some of the figures in the "Families for Excellent Schools" group also have connections to the Baker administration, the current governor?

Maurice Cunningham: Yes. At least two of the givers who are in the Baker administration — I think Sagan and Nunley — gave, I believe, over $700,000 between them. That's a lot of money, and they're actively serving in the Baker administration.

Barbara Howard: Well, this is the biggest campaign finance penalty in state history. How does it compare to past the settlements?

Maurice Cunningham: Oh multiple several times — this is by far the biggest — I think the largest before was $185,000. This is well over $400,000. It's a huge, huge settlement. It sends a strong signal.

Barbara Howard: And that money will be now going to the state's general fund, we should point out. And what's the upshot of all this for future ballot measure campaigns, do you think?

Maurice Cunningham: I think any group looking to spend "dark money" in Massachusetts has to be aware. They are now on notice that OCPF is going to look at these contributions and look at it very closely. And I think it puts a chill on the "dark money" operations in Massachusetts.

Barbara Howard: OK, thanks so much for talking with us, Maurice.

Maurice Cunningham: Glad to be here.

Barbara Howard: That's WGBH News contributor and UMass Boston political science professor Maurice Cunningham. He has been following so-called "dark money" in Massachusetts ballot measure campaigns. 

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