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AG Coakley hasn’t named her secret account donors

Glen Johnson

Attorney General Martha Coakley has not released the names of those who contributed to a secret bank account she has used to poll her U.S. Senate prospects for more than four years, despite recently declaring that such disclosure helps the public understand who is influencing government activity.

Under federal law, Coakley is not required to identify the donors unless and until she forms a federal campaign committee to manage a race. That same law allows her to maintain an undisclosed bank account to, in Federal Election Commission (FEC) parlance, “test the waters” for a federal race.

Coakley has taken advantage of the distinction between a publicly scrutinized committee and a privately maintained bank account to weigh her Senate chances without appearing to be overeager at the prospect of replacing one of a pair of fellow Massachusetts Democrats, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy or John F. Kerry.

The Associated Press sent Coakley two e-mails last Wednesday and Thursday seeking a list of the donors to the bank account and the dates of their contributions. The attorney general had not responded by last Thursday afternoon, despite her staff saying the requests had been forwarded to her.

Coakley divulged the existence of the bank account last Wednesday morning, after the AP asked her about a $25,000 polling fee on a recent report detailing activity by her state campaign finance committee.

After initially insisting the state-regulated money was spent solely to assess her prospects for re-election to state office, as is required by law, Coakley called back. She declared she had tapped a previously undisclosed federal bank account in 2004 and again in 2008 to pay for additional poll questions about a potential federal campaign.

She did not respond to follow-up questions.

In mid-December, when Coakley announced the indictment of Boston accountant Richard Vitale for allegedly concealing lobbying activity on behalf of then-House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, the state’s chief law enforcement officer argued for public disclosure of campaign contributions.

“We allow for contributions in Massachusetts. We encourage that. In fact, we have not gone the route of public campaign finance,” Coakley told reporters. “But we do require public disclosure, and it is the only way we can ensure that there is some way to tell how legislation and budgets are being influenced.”

A campaign finance watchdog said Coakley was within her rights to withhold a list of her donors, but she is only delaying their inevitable disclosure if she becomes a candidate.

“Particularly with a Senate race, where you’ve got a six-year gap between a seat coming open, I could see why you might test the waters for a bit longer than you would for a House race or a presidential race,” said Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. “But at some point, as the water-testing becomes more active, the FEC says you need to declare yourself a candidate or stop this.”

All the members of the state’s U.S. House delegation, several of whom have expressed interest in a possible Senate campaign, maintain such federal committees and report their fundraising activity through them.

A list of Coakley’s bank account donors and the dates of their contributions would ensure compliance with federal fundraising rules. In addition, detailing who had given how much to her private account would reveal whether the attorney general is butting up against a threshold requiring her to create one of the publicly reviewable federal campaign committees.

Candidates for federal office are allowed to receive a maximum of $2,300 per donor for a primary campaign and $2,300 for a general election campaign — nearly five times higher than the $500 contribution limit in Massachusetts.

Also, candidates are allowed to “test the waters” for a federal race only until they have raised or spent $5,000 — and publicly declared they are a candidate for federal office.

While Coakley has said she would consider a Senate race were there to be a vacancy, she has never publicly declared her candidacy for a seat. There were prospects of a special election in 2004, when Kerry was the Democratic presidential nominee and waging a campaign for the White House, and again last November, when Kerry was open to an appointment in the Obama administration and Kennedy was receiving treatment for brain cancer.

Without a list of donors and their contributions, though, it is more difficult to determine whether Coakley has exceeded the other parameter for moving past the testing-the-waters phase: raising or spending more than $5,000.

If and when Coakley forms a federal finance committee, she would be required to reveal the identity of the donors to her secret bank account. She would also be responsible for ensuring the donations and donors met the legal requirements for federal contributions, and divulge how much she spent on the poll questions.

(Associated Press)