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Light shed on charter ballot funds

Pro-charter group illegally hid donors

Banner Staff | 9/14/2017, 6 a.m.
The New York-based organization that last year bankrolled an effort to lift Massachusetts’ charter cap violated campaign law and will ...
Gov. Charlie Baker shakes hands at a 2016 Great Schools Massachusetts rally in favor of lifting the cap on charter schools. Governor’s office photo

The New York-based organization that last year bankrolled an effort to lift Massachusetts’ charter cap violated campaign law, according to the office of Campaign and Political Finance. When Families for Excellent Schools — Advocacy funneled $15 million into the Yes on Question 2 campaign, the organization illegally hid its donors’ identities.

“Massachusetts voters deserve to know the identity of those who attempt to influence them before Election Day,” Michael Sullivan, OCPF director, said in a media statement.

After receiving individual donations, FESA channeled those funds to the Great Schools Massachusetts Ballot Question Committee in a manner designed to obscure the money’s true source, according to the disposition agreement. This money comprised 70 percent of all receipts reported by the ballot committee.

In general, nonprofits are not required to reveal donors so long as the nonprofit does not engage in political activity. However, OCPF officials assert that during the 2016 ballot season, FESA specifically fundraised in order to donate to the political campaign committee — which then would only have to state FESA as its donor and not the original source of the money. FESA appeared to engage in further efforts to hide its funding — in one instance, FESA received $2.5 million in contributions from individuals; within a week, the organization provided a total of $2.5 million to Great Schools Massachusetts Ballot Question Committee, but dispersed those funds among five separate wire transfers, states the OCPF.

Legal settlement

As part of its legal settlement with the OCPF, Families for Excellent Schools—Advocacy paid more than $425,000 to the Massachusetts general fund. This is the largest civil forfeiture negotiated in the 44-year history of the OCPF. The amount also represents all the cash that FESA and its related organization, Families for Excellent Schools, had on hand as of Aug. 21, 2017.

Under the settlement, Families for Excellent Schools — Advocacy will dissolve and Families for Excellent Schools is barred from fundraising, soliciting or engaging in election-related activity in Massachusetts for four years.

FESA also was required to reveal its donors. The list includes notable billionaires as well as two officials from Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration. Baker was an out-spoken advocate in favor of passing Question 2 to lift the charter cap. Paul Sagan, who Baker appointed to chair the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, donated $496,000 to FESA. Baker administration official Mark Nunnelly provided $275,000 and his wife contributed another $275,000. Other heavy spenders include Walmart heir Alice Walton, who donated $750,000; former cable television magnate Amos B. Hostetter Jr, who contributed $2 million; and Boston hedge fund executive Seth Klarman, who kicked in $3.3 million.